Cervical radiculopathy is the clinical description of pain and/or neurological symptoms resulting from any type of condition that irritates a nerve in the cervical spine (neck).
Cervical nerve roots, named C1 through C8, exit the cervical spine above the designated vertebral level at all levels except the last one (C8 exits below the C7 vertebra). These cervical nerves then branch out to supply muscles that enable functioning of the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. They also carry sensory fibers to the skin that provide sensation.
See Cervical Nerves
When any nerve root in the cervical spine is irritated through compression or inflammation, symptoms of pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness can radiate anywhere along that nerve's pathway into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand.
Cervical radiculopathy symptoms most commonly appear intermittently at first—coming and going—but they could also develop suddenly or gradually.
Causes of Cervical Radiculopathy
Any condition that somehow compresses or irritates a cervical nerve can cause cervical radiculopathy. The most common causes include:
- Cervical Herniated Disc. If the inner material of the cervical disc leaks out and inflames or impinges the adjacent nerve, it can cause cervical radiculopathy. If a younger person (20s or 30s) has cervical radiculopathy, the most likely cause is a herniated disc.
- Cervical Spinal Stenosis. As part of the degenerative process of the cervical spine, changes in the spinal joints can lead to tightening of the space for the spinal canal. Spinal stenosis is a common cause of cervical radiculopathy symptoms in people over age 60.
- Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease. When a disc in the cervical spine degenerates, the disc becomes flatter and stiffer and does not support the spine as well. In some people this degenerative process can lead to inflammation or impingement of the nearby nerve root. Cervical degenerative disc disease is a common cause of radiculopathy in people over age 50.
Read more: Cervical Stenosis with Myelopathy
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It is also possible for cervical radiculopathy to be caused by other conditions, such as a tumor, fracture, infection or sarcoidosis, any of which can compress or cause damage to the cervical nerve roots.