A pinched nerve is a general term that refers to pain or a change in sensation (numbness, tingling, heat or cold sensation) somewhere along the course of the irritated nerve or where the irritated nerve begins or ends. For instance, a pinched nerve in the neck might cause pain in the neck alone or the patient might also experience numbness in the hand on the same side as the neck pain. Another common example is sciatica, which in some cases can be attributed to a pinched nerve in the lower back. The patient may only experience symptoms in the leg from a nerve that is being irritated in the lower back.
How exactly does a nerve get pinched? That’s a complicated question that can be at least partially addressed by thinking of what happens when you hit your funny bone (mild trauma to the Ulnar nerve) or put too much pressure on a limb and it falls asleep. In both cases, a nerve was aggravated or ‘pinched’ and a sensation of the event that caused the aggravation was felt. In the spine, this can occur when there is swelling near where a nerve exits between two vertebra ( the bones of the spine.) This can cause the nerve to become irritated and result in symptoms of pain, numbness, tingling, etc., as was previously mentioned. The causes for the swelling can be a combination of many things. If the disc in between the vertebra gets thinner due to over-work, damage from trauma, aging, etc., there is less room for the nerve. Subluxation (misalignment) of the vertebra reduces this space. Degenerative arthritis in the bones and joints of the spine can cause inflammation and narrow the passage for a nerve.
Does a nerve only get pinched at the spine? No, there are other areas of the body that can cause similar symptoms. For instance, carpal tunnel is a condition that involves a pinched nerve at the bones of the wrist, not the spine. Peroneal palsy is a condition that causes foot drop (difficulty or inability to lift a foot up at the ankle joint) and comes from damage to the Peroneal nerve, usually around the knee area. Problems called trigger points in muscles can mimic a pinched nerve sensation. There is even the commonly encountered piriformis muscle spasm (a muscle in the buttock) that can cause sciatica. Rarely, there can be direct pressure on the nerve from a tumor, which can be benign or malignant (cancer.)
What about problems with organs, like poor digestion? Well, in short, nerves do go to every organ in the body. Also, studies have demonstrated that if an organ is in trouble there is a reflex to the nerves of the spine. This is closely related to what you may have heard of called referred pain. For instance, someone with a gallbladder problem often complains of pain in the back, usually in the right upper back or between the shoulder blades. If a nerve from the mid-back area is being pinched, the nerve supply to everywhere that nerve goes to, including the organ it supplies, could experience problems. A Doctor of Chiropractor is trained and licensed in the diagnosis and treatment of pinched nerves. In fact, correcting problems caused by pinched nerves is the premise that Chiropractic was created for. Through careful history, examination, and the aid of x-rays, or in rare cases, if needed, computer tomography, or MRI.
A Doctor of Chiropractic can often determine if the cause of your symptoms are related to a pinched nerve and recommend a treatment program, which may include adjustment (manipulation) of misaligned vertebra (the bones of the spine) to reduce or eliminate the pressure on the affected nerve or nerves.