What is radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy is the medical term for the pain, numbness, or tingling that occurs when nerves coming from the spinal cord get pinched or damaged. Radiculopathy can affect different parts of the body, depending on which nerve or group of nerves is affected. People sometimes refer to radiculopathy as having a “pinched nerve.” Here are 2 common examples of radiculopathy:
  • Cervical radiculopathy – People with this type of radiculopathy have pain, numbness, or tingling down 1 or both arms. The condition happens when 1 or more of the nerves that go from the spine to the arm get pinched or damaged.
  • Lumbosacral radiculopathy – People with this type of radiculopathy have pain, numbness, or tingling in the buttocks or down the leg. The condition happens when 1 or more of the nerves that go from the spine to the foot and leg get pinched or damaged. (People sometimes refer to the symptoms of this type of radiculopathy as “sciatica.”)

What causes radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy can happen when changes in the neck or back cause a nerve to get pinched or damaged. This can happen if:
  • The vertebrae form bumps called bone spurs, which press on nearby nerves. (People with a condition called “spinal stenosis” often have this problem.)
  • The discs between the vertebrae dry up and shrink, so that the space between the vertebrae gets smaller. This causes nerves to get pinched.
  • The discs between the vertebrae break open and spill out, causing them to press on or irritate nearby nerves. (A disc that breaks open and spills is called a “herniated disc.”)
  • Other medical conditions, such as diabetes, infection, inflammation, or a tumor injure the nerves near the spinal cord.

Should I see a doctor?

If you have new pain, numbness, or tingling that seems to spreads out to your arms or legs from your spine, see a doctor.

Will I need tests?

Maybe. Doctors can tell a lot about a person’s radiculopathy based on which parts of the body are affected and how. Because of that, you might not need any tests, especially if you have had symptoms only for a short time. Still, if your doctor is concerned about nerve damage, he might order 1 or more of these tests:
  • Imaging tests – Imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans, create pictures of the inside of the body. These imaging tests can show problems with the back like those described above.
  • Electromyography (also called “EMG”) – During this test, a technician checks how well electrical pulses travel across nerves to the part of your body that has symptoms. The test helps show whether the nerves controlling that body part are working right.

How is radiculopathy treated?

Many people with radiculopathy do not need formal treatment. In some cases, the radiculopathy goes away as the back and nerves heal. In other cases, people find ways to cope with their symptoms. When people do get treatment, the treatments can include:
  • Pain medicines that you can get without a prescription (If these do not work, stronger prescription pain medicines are available.)
  • Medicines to relax the muscles (called muscle relaxants)
  • Injections of medicines that numb the back or reduce swelling
  • Physical therapy to learn special exercises and stretches
  • Massage
  • Surgery to repair the problem causing symptoms