The human spine is a complex structure consisting of 33 spinal vertebrae, punctuated with sturdy, yet gelatinous connective tissues called spinal discs. Combined, these structures function to protect your spinal cord as well as the nerves that branch away from the spine and fill the rest of your body. When the structure becomes compromised, whether through injury or lifestyle factors, the resulting irritating and painful symptoms are collectively known as radiculopathy.
What is Radiculopathy?
Radiculopathy is when one or more nerves in the body, usually somewhere in the spine or neck, are not working properly, and it is commonly associated with car accidents. Considered a type of neuropathy, radiculopathy occurs when nerve roots branching off the spinal cord become pinched as they pass through the space in-between the spinal vertebrae. While accidents are a common cause of radiculopathy, the condition can also develop as a result of:
- bone spurs
- degenerative disc disease
- bulging or herniated spinal discs
- spinal stenosis
- compression fractures of the vertebrae
- spinal tumors
Overall, the aforementioned structural abnormalities are the most common culprits behind the development of radiculopathy. The most frequently reported symptoms include:
- radiating nerve pain from the spine through the extremities
- unilateral arm or leg weakness
- numbness of the arms, legs, hands or feet
- tingling sensation in the extremities
- a sharp, stabbing pain around the spine—which may extend to the affected extremities
Radiculopathy is most often treated without surgery. However, the severity of the condition’s underlying causes will determine the appropriate treatment. If a herniated disc, bone spur or the narrowing of a spinal canal contributes to the patient’s nerve compression, in many cases, surgery will be recommended. A surgical procedure designed to relieve pressure on the nerve, repair the affected disc or create more space around the spinal cord often provides significant relief. In less severe cases, patients are typically prescribed corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs, narcotic pain medications or injectable steroids designed to relieve local inflammation. Conservative treatments have proven very successful and work to encourage normal movement patterns, reestablish spinal stability and mitigate inflammation around the affected nerves. These treatments include physical therapy, application of ice and heat, stretching, and massage.
Certain individuals are more likely to develop radiculopathy as a result of lifestyle factors that may contribute to spinal instability, inflammation, and injury. Risk factors for the development of radiculopathy include:
- poor lifting technique
- lack of physical activity
- weak core muscles
- poor posture
To help prevent the development of radiculopathy, it is important to practice regular physical activity, healthy dietary habits, core-strengthening exercises, and proper posture.
Radiculopathy is an irritating and often debilitating condition. While you can’t control outside factors that contribute to the condition’s development, you can, however, alter lifestyle factors that encourage its progression. If you believe you are suffering from radiculopathy, it is important to speak with a qualified medical professional. The proper diagnosis and appropriate course of treatment can help get you out of pain and back to living life on your terms.