Cervical Radiculopathy

The Advanced Spine Institute of Greater Boston sees numerous cervical radiculopathy cases each year. Radiculopathy develops when a nerve root is compressed or irritated at the point at which it exits the spinal canal. Sometimes called a “pinched nerve,” the discomfort of radiculopathy is due to pressure on the nerve. Radiculopathy can develop at any point in the spine and trigger symptoms in other parts of the body. When its locus is the neck area, it is called cervical radiculopathy.

Nerves associated with the cervical spine travel to the shoulders, arms, and hands, so cervical radiculopathy often results in pain or unusual sensations in these areas. Tingling, numbness, or sensations of “pins and needles,” as well as pain in shoulders, arms, and hands are typical of cervical radiculopathy. Since these nerves are also involved in body movement, cervical radiculopathy can affect coordination and cause muscle weakness.

Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy

In general, people with cervical radiculopathy have pain in the neck region that may spread across the shoulders, arms, and hands. The severity of symptoms depends on which nerves are involved and how badly they are compressed or irritated.

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy may come on all at once or they may come on gradually over time. Typical symptoms reported include:

  • Pain ranging from mild to severe
  • Numbness in arms and hands
  • Tingling sensations
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headaches at the back of the neck

Causes of Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy is typically due to a damaged disc. The discs are little “cushions” between the vertebrae that act like shock absorbers. Discs are rigid but filled with nucleus pulposus, a gel-like substance. When a disc of the cervical spine (neck area) is damaged, bulges, or bursts open, it can lead to cervical radiculopathy. The reasons for this are:

  • The damaged disc may bulge and suddenly (or gradually) start to put pressure on nearby nerve(s).
  • The damaged disc may herniate, leaking the inside of the disc on the nerves causing irritation and pain.

Nerve Compression

Am I At Risk Cervical Radiculopathy?

Since disc disorders are more common in the elderly, cervical radiculopathy is more common in seniors, but anyone can develop it. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the cervical spine can create bone spurs, in addition to damaged discs, that also block or put pressure on nearby nerves, causing radiculopathy. An injury or accident, of course, can also lead to cervical radiculopathy.

Cervical Radiculopathy Treatment

There are many good treatment options for cervical radiculopathy, and Advanced Spine Institute of Greater Boston can guide you through them every step of the way. Diagnosis usually begins with a physical exam, a medical history, and a neurological exam. Other tests that may be required include:

  • X-rays
  • MRI or CT scan
  • Nerve conduction studies

Patients obtain relief from medications, nerve blocks, and/or physical therapy. A cervical collar can be used to provide temporary support and limit neck motion.

Depending on the underlying cause and the particular patient, there are surgical approaches for cervical radiculopathy. Not all patients will require surgery, however. In some cases, non-surgical approaches including wearing a cervical collar (neck brace) and medication may provide adequate relief. If the condition is severe or if symptoms progressively worsen, surgery may be indicated.

There are several minimally invasive (small incision) procedure for cervical radiculopathy. In most cases, surgery means removing the damaged disc. If surgery is indicate, physicians at the Advanced Spine Institute of Greater Boston will walk you through the procedure and the risks and benefits. In many cases, such procedures can be performed on an outpatient basis or with only a short hospital stay.