Radiculopathy Types and What to Expect

Radiculopathy Types and What to Expect

You’ve likely heard of a pinched nerve, but you might not know the medical term for it: radiculopathy. 

When a spinal nerve root is compressed or pinched by surrounding structures — including cartilage, muscles, tendons, bone spurs, or the inner material from a herniated disc — it sends out pain signals that travel from the root down the length of the nerve into an arm or leg. 

This traveling pain is called radiculopathy, and it can occur anywhere along the spine’s length.

Radiculopathy affects 85 out of 100,000 American adults every year. It may happen at any age, but it’s more common in those over 50, because osteoarthritis (wear-and-tear arthritis) and age-related degenerative disc disease in the spine are common causes.

At Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery Center, our expert team of neurosurgeons knows how uncomfortable radiculopathy can be. That’s why we offer a full range of diagnostic testing and treatments, so you can move on with your life.

Radiculopathy types

Radiculopathy is divided into three categories, based on the location of the compressed nerve root.

Lumbar radiculopathy

This type describes compressed nerves in the lower back, and it’s the most common form. You may have heard lumbar radiculopathy called sciatica, because compression of the sciatic nerve, which exits the spine between the L4 and L5 vertebrae, is so often affected. 

But other nerves may be affected. And though the nerves originate in the lower back, symptoms may only appear in the leg.

Cervical radiculopathy

This type describes compressed nerves in the neck, also known as the cervical spine. The symptoms start in the neck and then run down the arms and into the fingertips.

Thoracic radiculopathy

This type describes compressed nerves in the upper back, also called the thoracic area of the spine. This is the least common type of radiculopathy and causes numbness and pain that starts in your front body and wraps around to your back.

What to expect from radiculopathy

A compressed nerve displays similar symptoms, no matter where in your body it’s located. These include:

If you have a pinched nerve that we can treat quickly, there's usually no permanent damage. Once we remove the impinging structure, the nerve stops sending out pain signals.

But if the pressure continues, you can experience chronic pain and weakness along the nerve’s path, which may lead to permanent damage. That’s why you need medical attention as soon as possible once symptoms begin.

Treating your pinched nerve

Treatment for radiculopathy depends on the underlying cause of the problem. At Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery Center, we offer a number of treatment options, always beginning with the conservative choices.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy (PT) is a good option to start, because it’s noninvasive and easy to perform. During PT sessions, you learn tailored stretching and strengthening exercises that release muscle tension and alleviate nerve compression. 

In addition, your therapist creates an exercise program you can do at home to maintain and improve upon your results, and they recommend modifications to your day-to-day activities to give you relief.

Epidural steroid injections (ESI)

We may inject a steroid into the epidural space in your spine to reduce inflammation and thereby relieve the pressure and pain of the compressed nerve. ESIs aren’t painful, and you should see results from a few days to a week after treatment. 

We may use ESIs as a primary treatment or in combination with physical therapy. If you’re having trouble with PT because of the pain, the ESI may give you enough relief to do the exercises.

Spinal cord stimulator

Physical therapy and EPIs are great if your compressed nerve is relatively recent, but if you’ve been suffering from chronic pain for more than a year without relief, we may recommend an implanted spinal cord stimulator. 

The device delivers mild electrical currents to the specific nerves causing you pain, interrupting the signals they send to your brain.

If you’re experiencing the pain and discomfort of radiculopathy, it’s time for an evaluation and effective treatment. Call any of our Atlanta-area offices, or request an appointment online today.

We’re located in College Park, Sandy Springs, and Bethlehem, Georgia.

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