What is Cervical Radiculopathy?

Your neck is one of the most important and sensitive areas of your body. Almost everyone has experienced neck pain from sleeping in the wrong position, and that is merely from a minor contortion of the spine. Any serious issues with muscles, bones or nerves in the neck can produce intense or, even, debilitating pain.

Cervical radiculopathy is a condition in which a nerve root in the cervical spine is damaged. This condition can present with numbness, pain or weakness in the shoulders, arms, or hands.  This pain or discomfort may take the form of a burning, shocking or pins-and-needles sensation.

The Cervical Spine

Your spine traverses the distance from your skull to your pelvis, but it has five distinct regions. In ascending order, they are the coccygeal, sacral, lumbar, thoracic and cervical. The cervical region is found in the neck and is comprised of seven vertebrae. Within this area are eight cervical nerve roots that branch out from the spinal cord and leave the spinal canal through tiny holes called foramen. From there they extend to the arms and hands.

This delicate part of the spine supports the head and may be easily damaged. There are many potential causes of neck pain, including

  • Arthritis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Bulging disc
  • Meningitis
  • Tumor

In general, the nerves in the neck are fairly resilient or, in other words, it takes quite a bit of damage to produce a serious neck injury. In most cases, neck pain usually does not mean that you have injured your spine, and you should make a full recovery with only modest medical care.

When to See a Physician about Your Neck Pain

However, there are some situations in which you should seek out help from a doctor as soon as possible. These circumstances include

  • Your neck pain has persisted for 6 weeks or longer
  • The pain is not improving or worsening
  • Incidental contact with the neck is painful
  • Loss of weight
  • Fevers or chill
  • Powerful headaches
  • Unable to tilt head forward
  • Weakness, pain or loss of coordination in the limbs
  • Episodes of nausea or vomiting

As always, if the pain is especially intense or unrelenting seek medical attention immediately.

Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy

It is not easy to distinguish cervical radiculopathy from other painful neck conditions which is why you should have a medical professional diagnose you if you suspect you have cervical radiculopathy.  The hallmark of cervical radiculopathy is pain that is centered on the neck and radiates out to the shoulders, arms, chest and upper back. Other symptoms include weakness and loss of coordination in the fingers or hands.

These symptoms arise due to pressure on one of the cervical nerves in the neck. In most cases, there is bone or tissue compressing the nerve around the foramen. There may be many causes of cervical radiculopathy including ruptured disc, arthritis or disc degeneration. In younger people, the most common cause of cervical radiculopathy is trauma like from an auto accident or sports collision.

How Serious Is Cervical Radiculopathy?

It can be easy to overreact to an intense pain in your neck.  You may jump to the conclusion that there is permanent damage to your spinal cord, but that is almost never the case.  Even if you have cervical radiculopathy, there is still a good chance you will make a full recovery.

Once properly diagnosed, cervical radiculopathy can be treated in a variety of ways. It may take from one to twelve weeks for your nerves to fully heal once the pressure on the cervical nerve has been relieved.

If this condition is left untreated, then there is the potential for very serious outcomes. If the cervical nerve remains compressed, the nerve cells could die. This may result in serious degradation of motor function or sensory loss. In other words, you could become partially paralyzed or lose feeling in your arms permanently.

Treatments for Cervical Radiculopathy

The type of treatment that your doctor may recommend for your cervical radiculopathy often depends on the cause and severity of the condition.  In many cases, your physician should start off with more conservative therapies that allow the condition to resolve on its own before trying more aggressive methods.

  • Rest and behavior modification—an initial treatment option is to limit strain on the cervical spine. In many cases, trauma has swollen tissue near the cervical nerve, and given time to heal, the compression should naturally disappear.  This may also include altering sitting or standing posture and limit activities that may strain the neck.
  • Hot or cold therapy—applying an ice or hot pack can help relieve inflammation or pain.  These applications should only last 15 or 20 minutes to prevent damage to the skin.
  • Physical therapy—a physical therapist can work with you to increase your neck strength, flexibility and posture.  This may help relieve pain as well as protect you from additional injury in the future.
  • Medications—your doctor is likely to recommend pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen to alleviate pain and inflammation. If the pain fails to respond, then your doctor may prescribe opioid painkillers, corticosteroids or muscle relaxants.
  • Massage therapy—although it may not initially sound like an authentic medical treatment at first, you may be surprised by how much better your neck will feel after massage therapy. In some cases, a chiropractor may manipulate the spine as well.
  • Cervical traction—your physician may recommend cervical traction as a way to minimize pressure on the affected nerve. This therapy gently stretches the neck, allowing the foramen to expand.
  • Epidural corticosteroid injection—with the aid of an x-ray, the physician will inject a corticosteroid—an anti-inflammatory compound—along with a numbing agent into the area of the irritated nerve.  Pain relief may last from weeks to months.
  • Surgery—if there is no improvement from other therapies, then you may be a candidate for a surgery to correct the cause of the cervical radiculopathy. Your doctor may recommend a cervical discectomy and fusion, artificial disk replacement or posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.