Radiculopathy is better known as a pinched nerve, and occurs in the neck, ribcage, lower back and other parts of the spine. It can be a painful and debilitating condition.

An important aspect to radiculopathy is that it is usually painful enough that people seek a doctor’s help, rather than bearing through the pain. If your doctor suspects radiculopathy, it is recommended you see a surgeon as soon as possible to learn of your options to yield a definite diagnosis and learn more about treatment and pain relief.

Nerve Roots

Nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. The spinal cord’s nerve roots consist of:

  • 8 cervical nerves
  • 12 thoracic nerves
  • 5 lumbar nerves
  • 5 sacral nerves
  • 1 coccygeal nerve

In the lower back, the most common pinched nerves are lumbar 5 and sacral 1. In the neck, cervical 6 or 7 are most often affected.


Radiculopathy occurs when the nerve root is compressed by something pressing against it, generally a bone spur or herniated disc. Tumors in the spine may also cause radiculopathy, as can infections. As the spine degenerates with age, radiculopathy becomes more common. Trauma can cause disc herniation and subsequent radiculopathy.

Radiculopathy may run in families and it tends to affect more active people.


While pain is the primary symptom, the location of the pain does not necessarily correspond with where it is felt. For example, radiculopathy in the neck may cause pain in the arms or hands, since that is where the nerves travel. This type of cervical radiculopathy also results in headaches. Any sort of head or neck movement increases the pain.

In the lower back, or lumbar region, pain may shoot down the leg, producing a condition known as sciatica. In the thoracic area, or ribcage, pain may engulf the entire chest. Some people may mistake thoracic radiculopathy for shingles. Diabetes may cause thoracic radiculopathy.

Along with pain, weakness and numbness are characteristic symptoms of radiculopathy. Less often, patients develop sensitivity to even the lightest touch on the affected area.


Along with a physical examination and history of the ailments, doctors diagnose radiculopathy via various tests. These include:

  • X-rays
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Myelogram – use of a contrasting dye in X-rays to look for problems in the nerve roots. A doctor will order this test if involvement of more than one pair of nerve roots is suspected
  • Electromyography (EMG) – measures nerve function
  • Spinal tap – ordered only if other tests prove inconclusive, to check for spinal cord infection

Treating Radiculopathy

Many patients recover with conservative treatment. These include pain and sleep medications and muscle relaxants. Some patients benefit from a supportive brace, or collar if the pinched nerve is in the neck. Physical therapy and/or rehabilitation can help restore movement and strength. Most patients recover within several weeks to several months.

If conservative treatments prove ineffective, a nerve block may provide long-term relief, or at least postpone the need for surgery. Formally known as an epidural steroid injection, this nerve block is injected directly into the spinal canal.

Contacting a Surgeon

Patients may also receive opiates for short periods if in severe pain. If the condition is not improving or worsens, surgery is necessary.

If you are experiencing radiculopathy or any other back issues, contact a skilled surgeon today to schedule an appointment for an examination and learn of your options.