What Does a Pinched Nerve Feel Like?

Have you ever had a pinched nerve? This neurological condition develops when surrounding tissues impinge on a nerve, causing pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling. While it can happen virtually anywhere in the body, pinched nerves are particularly common in the lumbar spine. 

Without a formal diagnosis, it can be difficult to tell whether your symptoms indicate nerve impingement. In this article, we’ll discuss what a pinched nerve feels like, and how to take the next steps toward relief.  

Table of Contents

Signs of a Pinched Nerve

The telltale signs of a pinched nerve include:

  • Numbness or lost sensation
  • Pain in the affected area (burning, sharp, or aching)
  • Back pain that radiates to the upper or lower extremities
  • Paresthesia, a “pins and needles” sensation
  • Muscle weakness
  • The frequent sensation that a foot or hand has “fallen asleep”

Some patients experience worsened pinched nerve symptoms at night when they’re trying to fall asleep. The pain typically begins at the irritated nerve root and extends to the extremities supplied by the nerve. For example, if you have a pinched lumbar nerve, the pain may radiate to one or both legs. 

Certain neurological symptoms indicate severe nerve injury that requires immediate medical attention, such as:

  • A loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Fever or chills
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Changes to your skin

How to Get Rid of Pinched Nerve

To get rid of a pinched nerve, prioritize sleep and take a break from any activities that strain the spine. You can also try heat therapy, ice therapy, and anti-inflammatory medications to alleviate swelling and pain. Other non-invasive treatment options include:

  • Physical therapy to improve posture, muscle strength, and mobility, all of which can reduce the strain on the spine
  • Massage therapy to reduce muscle tension and prevent spasms
  • Lifestyle adjustments, such as implementing a low-impact exercise routine, reaching a healthy weight, and quitting smoking to promote nerve healing

What Relaxes a Pinched Nerve?

You can relax a pinched nerve with heat therapy, gentle movement (like walking or stretching), and leg elevation. 

  • Heat therapy involves applying a heating pad to the area with a pinched nerve. Oftentimes, pinched nerves are surrounded by tight muscles, which worsens nerve irritation. Heat promotes muscle relaxation and increases blood flow to the area, leading to symptom relief. 
  • Gentle movements like walking or child’s pose increases circulation to the irritated nerve, which promotes healing. Additionally, staying active will help increase your range of motion, warding off muscle tension that can exacerbate neurological symptoms. 
  • Leg elevation can help alleviate radiating pain from a pinched lumbar nerve. Ensure that your knees and hips both have a 90-degree bend, with your legs positioned above your chest. This takes the pressure off of the lumbar spine to reduce inflammation. 

What Makes a Pinched Nerve Worse?

Overuse and poor posture make a pinched nerve worse. So, try to avoid activities that could overuse the nerve, including:

  • Weight-bearing activities, including weightlifting
  • Activities that involve twisting the spine, like gymnastics, golfing, some yoga poses, diving
  • Contact sports, including football, hockey, soccer, and boxing

Poor posture can also make a pinched nerve worse. So, try to remain aware of your posture throughout the day, whether you’re sitting or standing. Your shoulders should be back with your head in line with your body and a small curve in your lower back. 

Prolonged periods of sitting may worsen your pinched nerve symptoms by putting pressure on the spine. If your occupation requires sitting at a desk, consider getting a standing desk or standing up and walking around periodically throughout the work day. 

How Do You Sleep With a Pinched Nerve?

To sleep with a pinched nerve, try sleeping on your side with a pillow in between your knees, or sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees. These positions help reduce the stress on your spine while you sleep. 

Certain sleeping positions can aggravate pinched nerves, including sleeping on your stomach. But, if sleeping on your stomach is the most comfortable position for you, place a pillow under your abdomen to avoid straining the spine.  

How Do You Know If a Pinched Nerve Is Healing?

You may be able to tell that a pinched nerve is healing if your nerve pain gradually improves. Other signs that a pinched nerve is healing include:

  • Restored sensation in the affected area
  • Greater strength in the affected area 
  • Improved range of motion
  • Less frequent pins and needles sensation
  • Fewer muscle spasms

Pinched Nerve Healing Signs

Pinched nerve healing signs can vary from patient to patient, but often include:

  • Reduced nerve pain: You may be able to tell that a pinched nerve is healing if your nerve pain gradually improves.
  • Restored sensation in the affected area: Numbness in the area supplied by the affected nerve is a common symptom of nerve impingement. As the nerve heals, you may experience greater sensation in that area. Some patients even have hypersensitivity in the area, which typically normalizes over time. 
  • Greater strength in the affected area: Weakness in the legs and feet is a common symptom of lumbar pinched nerves. Therefore, improved strength in the extremities is a possible sign of nerve healing. 
  • Improved range of motion: Pinched nerves can decrease your range of motion in the affected area, like the lumbar spine. As the nerve recovers, you may notice that your range of motion becomes less limited. Physical therapy exercises can further expand your mobility during the nerve healing process
  • Less frequent pins and needles sensation: Many people experience a “pins and needles” sensation in the area supplied by a pinched nerve. This symptom will go away over time as the nerve heals.
    • In some cases, individuals experience tingling when a damaged nerve regenerates. This sensation results from young axons that are growing in the injured area. The tingling of nerve healing will likely feel less severe than the tingling caused by a pinched nerve. 
  • Fewer muscle spasms: A pinched nerve can send abnormal signals to certain muscles, leading to spasms. This occurs less and less as the nerve heals. 
  • Itchiness: Some people experience itchiness in the area affected by a pinched nerve. This occurs when the nerve is stimulated by activity in the area that’s healing. In the brain, this is mistakenly interpreted as itchiness.
  • Shock-like sensation: Some people report a sensation like an electric shock as a nerve heals. This indicates that the nerve is healing, but can be similar to the burning sensation associated with nerve damage. Your physician can help pinpoint the source of this symptom.  

How Long Does it Take a Pinched Nerve to Heal?

It generally takes between one and three months for a pinched nerve to heal. However, this period can vary significantly depending on the severity of the injury and how well the patient sticks to their treatment plan. It also generally takes longer for a pinched nerve to heal in older patients. 

Can You See a Pinched Nerve on an MRI?

Yes, you can see a pinched nerve on an MRI. MRI is short for magnetic resonance imaging and is the preferred imaging test for nerve damage, including pinched nerves. 

MRI scans use robust magnets to generate a magnetic field. This field compels the protons in the patient’s body to align with the protons in the field. Then, a radiofrequency current is sent through the patient, making the protons move against the magnetic field. This process generates detailed images of the inside of the body, including organ, muscle, bone, blood vessel, and nerve tissue.   

Pinched nerves can usually be diagnosed with a thorough physical exam and medical history. However, your physician may order an MRI scan to pinpoint the location of the injured nerve. An MRI scan may also be able to identify the root cause of the pinched nerve, such as a bone spur or herniated disc.  

What if Pinched Nerve Is a Symptom of Severe Spine Conditions?

If a pinched nerve is a symptom of a severe spine condition, it’s crucial to receive prompt medical treatment. For symptoms that don’t resolve with conservative therapies, spinal surgery may be required. 

The spinal conditions that can cause a pinched nerve include:

  • Herniated disc

A herniated disc is an injury to one of the protective discs located in between the vertebrae of the spine. With this condition, the jelly-like disc interior protrudes from a crack in the disc’s outer shell and may press on nearby nerves. 

  • Bone spurs

Bone spurs are lumps of excess bone tissue that form in response to increased friction within the spinal joints. They’re usually a complication of spinal osteoarthritis, with which the protective cartilage in the spinal joints wears away. 

  • Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease is the term used to describe pain from a damaged spinal disc. It develops as a result of age-related wear and tear on the spine, and pinched nerves are a possible complication. 

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When surgery is required for a pinched nerve, spinal decompression surgery with spinal fusion is the go-to option. Spinal decompression procedures, like laminectomy, remove the tissue that’s impinging on the nerve. Fusion stabilizes the spine by permanently joining two or more affected vertebrae. 

To avoid lost mobility and lengthy recovery from spinal fusion, patients can consider the TOPS System for spinal stenosis and spondylolisthesis. Contact a spinal specialist in your area to learn more.