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Nerve Compression (Pinched Nerve)

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What Is a Pinched Nerve?

A pinched nerve — also called nerve compression — happens when surrounding tissues place too much pressure on the nerve.

Nerves are tiny fibers that carry messages from our brains throughout our bodies, and back to our brains.

When nerves pass through very small spaces — such as our joints — it's easier for them to become compressed, or pinched. This means that they have too much pressure on them.

A compressed or pinched nerve can occur between tissues such as:

  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Bones
  • Fluid in our joints

Some common places to have compressed nerves are in your:

  • Fingers
  • Hands
  • Wrist
  • Shoulders
  • Legs
  • Knees
  • Feet
  • Toes

Nerve compression causes and risk factors

Nerve compression and pinched nerve causes include:

  • External force (such as hitting your elbow)
  • Swelling within the joints
  • Bruises or cysts

Diabetes puts you at a high risk for getting compressed nerves.

Pinched Nerve Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pinched nerve symptoms

Pinched nerve (nerve compression) symptoms include:

  • Pain where the nerve is compressed.
  • Pain that begins at the compressed nerve, but travels along the affected limb.
  • Tingling, numbness, or burning.
  • Weakness in the affected body part.

If you have nerve compression in your wrist, you might feel some numbness or tingling in your hand.

A pinched nerve in your shoulder might cause pain that travels to your back or down your arm.

Pinched nerve diagnosis

To find out if you have a pinched or compressed nerve, your doctor will take your medical history and perform an exam.

During your exam, the doctor may move your affected limbs in certain ways, or even press on the joints.

Nerve compression test

Your doctor may also order a nerve conduction study — called an electromyogram — to confirm the diagnosis.

Nerve conduction studies use weak electrical stimulation to measure whether the nerve is able to carry signals to and from the brain. 

Learn more about pinched nerve diagnostic testing

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Pinched Nerve Treatment

Treatment goals for pinched or compressed nerves

The first goal of nerve compression treatment is to reduce your pain and any swelling associated with the compression.

The long-term goal is to reduce the chances that your pinched nerve will cause muscle weakness or even loss of use of the muscle.

Medication for pinched nerve relief

Doctors at UPMC Orthopaedic Care may:

  • Treat you with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDS) for pain and swelling.
  • Prescribe corticosteroids or steroids to reduce inflammation and swelling, if NSAIDS don't work well for you.
  • Suggest immobilizing your affected limb so that it can rest, but for limited times.

Nerve compression surgery

In more severe cases, doctors may use nerve compression surgery as a last resort for treating your pinched nerve. 

Learn more about pinched nerve treatments

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