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Health Answers

What causes a pinched nerve and how is it treated?

Q. What causes a pinched nerve and how is it treated?

A. A nerve is called “pinched” when something is pressing on it — such as tendons, ligaments, or bone — which irritates the nerve and can cause it to malfunction. Common symptoms of nerve compression include numbness, tingling (pins and needles), and muscle weakness.

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“Because nerves carry information between the limbs and spinal cord,” says Johnny Salameh, a neurologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, “compression of a nerve in one place can cause symptoms at the site of injury or further down in the area innervated by that nerve.” A pinched nerve in the back could cause back pain and symptoms down the leg. Carpal tunnel syndrome caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist usually affects the thumb and index and middle fingers.

Salameh says that many cases of a pinched nerve can be treated simply with rest. Limiting movement of the affected parts of the body can reduce irritation and allow the damaged nerve to recover. Physical therapy can help strengthen and stretch specific muscles to relieve pressure on the pinched nerve. Modifying activities that aggravate the nerve can also help. Anti-inflammatory and analgesic medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen can reduce inflammation around the affected nerve and alleviate pain, and other medications can specifically target pain from nerve irritation. Corticosteroid injections may ease pain and inflammation. Salameh says that if symptoms of a pinched nerve do not improve after several weeks of conservative treatment, surgery to reduce nerve compression is another option.

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