Patient with neck pain

The phrase ‘trapped nerve’ conjures up quite an unpleasant picture and it isn’t really a great way to explain what’s actually happening in your body when you get nerve pain.

It’s also quite commonly blamed for lots of different types of neck pain, regardless of the underlying cause. In fact, if you don’t have any symptoms in your arms or hands like pain, pins and needles, tingling, numbness or weakness  then it’s unlikely that you have a problem with one of the nerves in your neck at all.

Even though the sharp ‘zing’ of pain when you move your neck may remind you of a nerve, if your symptoms are only felt in your neck, they’re more likely to be coming from the joints or muscles.

What is a trapped nerve?

Nerves travel out in bundles from your spinal cord through tunnels formed by the bones of your spine (vertebrae). A true ‘trapped nerve’ occurs when one of your nerves is compressed by an extra bit of bone growing (osteophyte) which narrows the nerve tunnel. It can also occur if you have injured one of your discs and part of the disc is pressing directly onto the nerve.

When a nerve is truly compressed, there is always a predictable pattern of numbness or loss of feeling in the skin, a loss of strength in your arm or hand and your reflexes will be absent or reduced when they are tested.

It’s not actually that common and if you are experiencing symptoms down your arms spreading from your neck then you are far more likely to have a form of nerve irritation, rather than a trapped nerve.

Nerve irritation and neck pain

Your nerves can become inflamed like any of the soft tissues in your body. This can happen suddenly after an accident, like a whiplash injury or can develop gradually due to accumulative strain.

When you move your neck and shoulders to reach for something or look around, the nerves around your neck stretch and move too. This is entirely normal and you won’t experience any symptoms unless you stretch a nerve beyond 5% of its original length.

When a nerve is inflamed or irritated it becomes more sensitive to stretch. This means that it will start hurt from just a 3% stretch, which is well within the range it should actually be able to tolerate. Put simply, your nerve still has the capability of moving and stretching as it should, but it has become more sensitive and thinks that you are stretching it too much, even when you’re not. This is why you may suddenly find that everyday arm movement causes pain or pins and needles.

How to reduce nerve irritation and sensitivity

Even if you are experiencing numbness or some weakness in your arm, this can often be treated and resolved with physiotherapy, so try not to panic.

Controlling your pain is important to enable you to move your neck and shoulders, which helps your nerves to settle and become less sensitive again. Try over-the-counter pain control first. If this does not help, then discuss trying some neuropathic pain control medication with your GP. Try propping your arm on some pillows while you are sitting and use a wheat pack or hot water bottle to apply some heat to relax tight muscles around your neck for up to 10 minutes.

We recommend these exercises but be aware that nerves prefer gentle continuous movement, so don’t hold these positions, just move into them and then back out of them again. Don’t push into pain, just move within a comfortable range that doesn’t increase your neck or arm symptoms. Start by rolling your shoulders back 5 – 10 times:

Neck bend

Neck exercise for trapped nerves

Sitting, take your chin down towards your chest. Return. Repeat 5-10 times

Neck turn

neck stretch into rotation for nerve pain

Sitting, turn your head to look over your shoulder. Return. Repeat 5-10 times in both directions.

If you have any concerns please don’t hesitate to get in touch,

The Physiofit team!