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What is a Cervical Radiculopathy?

Cervical radiculopathy is often referred to as a pinched nerve in the neck. It is characterized by radiating pain from the neck to the shoulder, shoulder blade, arm, or hand.

Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root coming off the spinal cord becomes compressed. The compression can occur for various reasons. In younger people, it may occur when a cervical disc herniates due to trauma. In older individuals, it commonly occurs spontaneously as a result of arthritis or decreased disc height in the neck region.

The cervical spine consists of cervical vertebrae (the bones that form the neck region). Each vertebra is separated by a gel-like disc. The discs provide shock absorption for the spine. The spinal cord travels through a canal in the cervical vertebrae. Spinal nerve roots extend from the spinal cord and branch off going to specific locations in the arm. The spinal nerves send signals to our muscles for movement as well as sensations that we feel in the entire arm. The spinal cord is like a tree trunk, and the spinal nerves are like the tree branches. If an impingement or abnormal pressure is placed on a branch near the trunk, everything along that branch will be affected. That is why a pinched nerve in the neck can cause pain, weakness, and loss of sensation in the arm, even though the pinch is in the cervical region.

Spinal nerves can be impinged by:

  • Arthritis or disc wear-and-tear with age
  • Herniated or bulging discs from trauma or degeneration
  • Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spaces in which the nerves travel
  • Tumor, which can be benign or malignant, impinging the nerve root

How does it feel?

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy vary depending on the nerve root involved, and commonly occur on the same side of the body as the affected nerve.

The symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the neck, shoulder blade, shoulder, upper chest, or arm, with pain possibly radiating into the fingers following the path of the involved nerve root.
  • Pain described as “sharp” or “pins-and-needles” or “popping sensation” in cervical region.
  • General dull ache or numbness anywhere along the pathway of the nerve.
  • Weakness in the shoulder, arm, or hand.
  • Pain that worsens with certain neck movements.
  • Pain that improves when the arm is lifted over and behind the head (relieving tension on the spinal nerve).

How is it diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will gently test the movement of your neck and arms. The therapist will check your tendon reflexes and strength, and conduct special tests on your neck and upper extremity to determine which spinal nerve root(s) may be involved, and to rule out other conditions. Your physician may order further tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electromyography (EMG).

How can a Physical Therapist help?

Physical therapy is an effective treatment for cervical radiculopathy, and in many cases, it completely resolves symptoms. Your physical therapist will develop an individual treatment plan based on the findings of your initial evaluation. The treatment plan may include:

Pain Management. The first goal is to reduce the pain and inflammation in the area. Your therapist might use modalities such as ice and heat.

Manual Therapy. Your physical therapist may use manual therapy techniques, such as manual cervical traction, to relieve pressure in the cervical region. This procedure can provide immediate relief of pain and numbness radiating into the arm. Gentle massage may also be performed on the muscles of the cervical spine.

Posture Education. Posture education is an important part of rehabilitation. Your physical therapist may suggest adjustments to your workstation and work habits, to promote good posture to protect your neck. You will also receive instructions on how to bend, reach, and lift throughout the day in safe positions that place minimal pressure on your spinal discs.

Range-of-Motion Exercises. Your physical therapist will teach you gentle cervical mobility exercises to relieve your symptoms, and allow you to return to normal movement. In the beginning stages of recovery, it is important that none of these exercises increase the pain radiating down into your arm. It is important to communicate your symptoms accurately to your physical therapist. Your therapist will teach you neck stretches to take pressure off of your neck from extended periods of sitting, to help improve your mobility.

Strengthening Exercises. Your physical therapist will help you determine which muscle groups need to be strengthened based on which spinal nerves are involved in your particular case. Neck stability (strengthening) exercises may also be performed. You will receive a home-exercise program to continue strengthening your neck, shoulder, arm, and upper back long after your formal physical therapy has ended.

Functional Training. As your symptoms improve, your physical therapist will work on functional exercises to help you return to your job, sport, or other daily activities. For example, if your job duties require overhead reaching, pushing, pulling, and long periods of sitting, you will be taught ways to perform these tasks to reduce undue stress to the neck.

Most cases of cervical radiculopathy are resolved with physical therapy and do not require surgery.