That Pain in Your Arm May Start in Your Neck

Pain can be deceptive — it’s not always an accurate indicator of the injury location. A good example is cervical radiculopathy, where an injury occurs in your neck, but you feel the pain in your arm.

Cervical radiculopathy’s odd behavior can be frustrating, so it’s a good thing it’s somewhat rare: only about 100 out of every 100,000 men and 60 out of every 100,000 women suffer from it. But if you’re one of them, those stats don’t matter — all you care about is finding relief. 

Dr. Stanley Mathew, our triple-board certified pain management specialist and expert physiatrist at American Rehabilitation Medicine in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, specializes in complex physical impairments and chronic pain, and has diagnosed and treated many cases of cervical radiculopathy. If you have unexplained pain in your arm and suspect cervical radiculopathy, here’s what you need to know.

What is cervical radiculopathy?

You may have heard of cervical radiculopathy by it’s more common name — a pinched nerve. Any time a nerve gets compressed, or pinched, you may experience symptoms anywhere along the path of that nerve. For example, sciatica is a type of radiculopathy. If your sciatic nerve, which begins in your lower back, gets pinched, you could feel symptoms all the way down either leg. 

Likewise, if you feel pain in your arm and have no known arm injury, the pain may be originating in your neck, the cervical region of your spine. This is called radiculopathy, but is sometimes called referred pain.

What causes cervical radiculopathy?

Anything that puts pressure on a nerve in your neck can cause cervical radiculopathy, including infections and tumors, but the most common causes are degenerative changes and herniated discs.

Degenerative changes

As you age, the cushiony discs that separate the vertebrae in your spine degrade and lose their structural integrity. If they collapse, your vertebrae begin to rub against one another and develop bone spurs, small growths of hardened tissue. Not only does this stiffen your spine and restrict movement, but it also narrows the space where nerves typically run in and out of your spinal canal, and often, one or more gets pinched.

Arthritis can also lead to cervical radiculopathy, as the wear-and-tear over time grinds away at bones and cartilage in your spine until the vertebrae meet and compress nearby nerves.

Herniated disc

The most common reason for cervical radiculopathy in younger people is a herniated disc. If you lift, twist, or bend the wrong way, or if you fall or sustain a forceful impact injury, even a healthy disc can bulge past its boundaries and press on a nerve. 

Discs have a soft, gel-like center (the nucleus) and a tough outer shell (the annulus). An injury can rupture the annulus and allow the nucleus to escape, much like a smashed jelly-filled donut.

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy

Sometimes, you can feel pain from a pinched nerve in your neck exactly where the nerve is affected. It’s often described as a sharp, burning sensation. But even if your neck feels fine, the symptoms may show up in your arm. You might feel:

And your arm isn’t the only victim. It’s not unusual for cervical radiculopathy to radiate all the way down to your hands and fingers. 

Diagnosing and treating cervical radiculopathy

Some instances of cervical radiculopathy resolve themselves without treatment. If you have temporary inflammation that subsides, or a misaligned disc that realigns, your symptoms may go away on their own.

However, some cases aren’t quite as simple. To confirm your diagnosis, Dr. Mathew relies on imaging tests to view your bone and soft tissues. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can all be helpful in the diagnostic process. 

However, Dr. Mathew specializes in electrodiagnostic medicine, a technique that evaluates and records electrical activity in your musculoskeletal system and can detect abnormal nerve function.

If you have cervical radiculopathy, Dr. Mathew determines the best course of treatment and always opts for the most conservative modalities first. You may find significant relief from physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications.

Steroid injections offer next-level pain relief by delivering anti-inflammatory medication directly to the site. Although it doesn’t automatically relieve pressure from the nerve, it may give you enough pain relief to participate more fully in physical therapy, which can relieve the pressure. 

Cervical radiculopathy is highly treatable, so don’t suffer through it needlessly. To learn more about all types of radiculopathy and our effective treatments, call us at 319-369-7331, or request an appointment online today. 

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