How Do I Know If My Nerve is Pinched?   

How Do I Know If My Nerve is Pinched?

Woman holding her lower back from throbbing pain, potentially a pinched nerve.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Anthony Conte, M.D.

Sciatica. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Tennis elbow. What do these conditions have in common? Each is caused by a pinched nerve.

“Pinched nerve” is the informal term for a nerve that becomes compressed by surrounding tissue. When the nerve is compressed, it leads to pain, numbness or other symptoms.

How can you tell if you have a pinched nerve?

“A pinched nerve feels different than a muscle sprain or strain,” says spine and neurosurgeon, Anthony Conte, M.D. “It’s a sharp, intense pain that extends beyond a single body part.”

Pinched-nerve pain originates at a nerve root, which branches off from the spinal cord. When a nerve root is compressed, pain affects body parts connected to that nerve.

Nerves may become compressed by a herniated disc or pressure from surrounding tissue. Inflammation may also cause pressure that leads to a pinched nerve.

“There are numerous causes of a pinched nerve, ranging from arthritis to trauma to pregnancy,” says Dr. Conte. “Any condition that puts pressure on a nerve root may lead to pain and discomfort.”

Signs of a Pinched Nerve

With a pinched nerve, you may notice symptoms like these in the affected areas:

  • Sharp pain
  • Burning pain
  • Pain that radiates outward, from one body part to other
  • Numbness
  • Decreased sensation
  • A pins-and-needles feeling
  • Feeling like a body part has “fallen asleep”
  • Muscle weakness
  • Worsening of problems while you sleep

Symptoms that accompany a pinched nerve are different than for a pulled muscle. Both hurt, but muscle pain isn’t sharp or burning and doesn’t radiate outward.

“People with a pinched nerve may not know where the pain is coming from,” Dr. Conte says. “Some with sciatica affecting legs and buttocks don’t realize that the lower back is the source."

Common Areas Affected by a Pinched Nerve

Pinched-nerve pain usually originates in the neck or back, often the lower back. It may also originate in the wrist or elbow.

A pinched nerve may lead to:

  • Neck or shoulder pain that may affect the arms
  • Back or hip pain that may affect the buttocks and/or legs
  • Pain in the chest
  • Carpal tunnel pain affecting the wrist and/or hand
  • Elbow pain, such as tennis elbow, that may affect an arm

Causes of a Pinched Nerve

Some people develop a pinched nerve suddenly, while other times, it builds gradually. There are many ways that tissue or bone may compress a nerve, causing symptoms.

Common causes of a pinched nerve include:

  • A sports injury
  • A car accident or other trauma
  • A herniated disc (“slipped disc”)
  • Bone spurs along the spine
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy

Treating a Pinched Nerve at Home

Many people are able to ease the pain of a pinched nerve by themselves at home. Different home remedies may be effective.

If you have a pinched nerve, you may find relief by:

  • Resting the affected area
  • Avoiding activities that cause discomfort
  • Putting ice and/or heat on the affected area
  • Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Wearing a splint or collar (such as a wrist splint for carpal tunnel syndrome)

If the pain doesn’t improve after a week or two, see a doctor for help. Doctors may offer additional treatments, including:

  • Physical therapy
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Oral corticosteroid medication
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Surgical options, if other treatments aren’t helpful

“Although some people need surgery to alleviate nerve compression, many people recover on their own,” says Dr. Conte “Conservative treatments such as medications and physical therapy are often highly effective in treating and relieving pain from a pinched nerve .”

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.

We use cookies to improve your experience. Please read our Privacy Policy or click Accept.