Pinched Nerve? When to See a Neurosurgeon

Pinched Nerve? When to See a Neurosurgeon

February 07, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Jonathan Yun, M.D.

A pinched nerve can be quite painful and is often the result of a normal wear-and-tear injury to the spine.

“These spinal nerves originate from the spine and branch out to the arms and legs,” says Jonathan Yun, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mountainside Medical Center. “They are responsible for providing sensation to various parts of the body, so if they are compressed or irritated, it can cause significant pain.”

But how do you know if you have a pinched nerve, and when should you see a doctor about it?

How to Tell If You Have a Pinched Nerve

If you have a pinched nerve, you may experience sudden or progressive pain that can involve your back and radiate down your arms or legs, as well as weakness or numbness.

To determine whether you have a pinched nerve or something else, speak with a primary care doctor, neurologist or neurosurgeon. The doctor will ask you questions about your pain and medical history, and do a physical examination to determine if you have a pinched nerve or another issue.

If your doctor suspects it could be a pinched nerve, you will have an MRI, a type of imaging that can highlight where the nerve might be compressed.  

The pain could be happening for a variety of reasons including peripheral neuropathy, disc herniation or arthritic changes in the spine. Your doctor will be looking for focused areas of weakness and correlate these areas with the associated nerves, as well as rule out other conditions before diagnosing a pinched nerve.

Treatment for a Pinched Nerve

Most pinched nerve cases can be managed conservatively. Conservative treatment options include:

  • Over-the counter pain medication or stronger, prescribed pain medicine
  • Physical therapy
  • Steroid injections including epidurals with a pain management specialist

These methods tend to be successful in situations where the pain is sudden and intense.

Surgery is also an option for some patients. “Today, we have minimally invasive ways to address pinched nerves,” Dr. Yun says. “Patients often go home the same day as their surgery rather than having to spend a few nights in the hospital.” After surgery, a person can usually return to a normal lifestyle in a matter of days.

Minimally invasive surgery uses special instruments and a microscope that allow the surgeon to make tiny incisions as focused as possible on the nerve to decompress it.

“Speaking to a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you’ll need surgery,” says Dr. Yun. “My job is to educate and make sense of your symptoms and my personal philosophy is to try all conservative options, then consider surgery as a last resort.”

He encourages patients to see a doctor as soon as they first start to experience pain symptoms, because it provides the best chance of resolving the problem. “The earlier you can see a specialist, the better,” he says.

How to Avoid a Pinched Nerve

Often, a pinched nerve is something that develops over months or years, says Dr. Yun. Here are four things you can do to avoid the condition:

  1. Check your posture. Proper postural hygiene is important. If you find that standing or sitting up straight is challenging, there are posture exercises you can do. It’s important to take care of your body by not bending, twisting or lifting excessively in ways that aren’t appropriate.
  2. Exercise safely. Maintaining a physically active lifestyle to stay as fit as possible is great for your spine and overall health. When exercising, take care of your body by not overdoing it or pushing yourself too hard, which can cause injury. With that said, anyone can develop a pinched nerve. Dr. Yun has treated all kinds of people for pinched nerves, regardless of age, gender and body type. “It even happens randomly to very fit individuals,” he says.
  3. Lose weight. If you are overweight or obese, consider losing weight, as extra weight puts added stress on your spine and joints and can injure or inflame the nerves.
  4. Work smarter. If you have a job that requires you to perform repetitive motions or lift heavy objects, consider how your movements or positioning might be affecting your body. Make sure you are lifting properly and taking breaks if you become tired. If you work at a desk, get up and walk around at least once an hour.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



Subscribe to get the latest health tips from our expert clinicians delivered weekly to your inbox.

Common Questions About Back Pain

Approximately 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their life. 

Help Alleviate Back Pain with a Quick Kettlebell Workout

Whether you’re back in the office or working from home, if your profession has you seated for majority of the day, you may be one of the approximately 31 million Americans who are dealing with back pain.

What Is Neuro Fatigue?

We all know what it feels like to be physically fatigued: a sensation of feeling tired and not having enough energy to move our muscles or body in the way we want after a period of intense exercise or other activity. 

Types of Headaches Explained by a Neurologist

What type of headache might you be experiencing, and what can you do about it? Our neurologist weighs in.

8 Possible Causes (and Treatments) for Your Dizziness

Research shows that dizziness, vertigo and balance problems affect about 15 percent of U.S. adults each year.

We use cookies to improve your site experience. By using this site,
you agree to our Terms & Conditions. Also, please read our Privacy Policy.
Accept All Cookies