What is Radiculopathy?

Have you heard of radiculopathy? This condition results from nerve irritation and, if it progresses, can induce debilitating symptoms. If you’ve already been diagnosed with radiculopathy, you know that it can alter your ability to complete day-to-day motions and activities. 

Understanding radiculopathy, what causes it, and what symptoms it triggers can help you more effectively cope with this neurological condition. 

What is Radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy is a term that refers to chronic injuries resulting from the bones of the spinal column (vertebrae), or the cushioning discs between them, impinging on a nerve root in the spinal column. With this condition, the affected nerve root is irritated or inflamed, leading to a variety of neurological symptoms. 

Any part of the spine can be affected by radiculopathy. With lumbar radiculopathy, the condition can trigger lower back pain that spreads down to one or both legs. 

What Are The Symptoms of Radiculopathy?

Common symptoms of radiculopathy include numbness, tingling, weakness, loss of motor function, muscle spasms, and radiating pain. 

The symptoms of radiculopathy may be felt all the way to the tips of fingers or toes, even though the nerve compression occurs at the base of the nerve in the spine. This is because spinal nerves extend from the spinal canal throughout the body, supplying sensation to the extremities. 

Is Radiculopathy Serious?

Radiculopathy can be serious if it’s left untreated. In other words, radiculopathy symptoms become more serious with time when a patient fails to receive professional medical care.

When it’s promptly addressed, radiculopathy often improves within six to 12 weeks. Many radiculopathy cases even resolve with at-home care alone, without the need for medications or hands-on treatments. 

Can I Work With Radiculopathy?

Most patients can work with radiculopathy. Although it can affect your ability to work, in severe cases, radiculopathy most often goes away with rest and at-home treatments. 

When radiculopathy persists longer than a few weeks, it can start to affect your work. This is particularly true for patients in careers that require physical exertion, such as construction, warehouse work, landscaping, agricultural work, firefighting, and professional athletics. 

Surprisingly, radiculopathy can even inhibit your ability to work if you have a sedentary job. This is because lumbar radiculopathy can lead to debilitating pain in the lower back and legs with prolonged periods of sitting. With this in mind, patients who have been diagnosed with radiculopathy and have desk jobs should try to take a break from sitting at least once every hour. 

Is Radiculopathy a Permanent Disability?

Radiculopathy can become a permanent disability over time.

Patients who are suffering from lumbar radiculopathy may be eligible to reap disability benefits. Eligibility requirements can vary depending on your disability insurance plan. 

Radiculopathy may be considered a disability because it can be debilitating, making it difficult to work. Severe radiculopathy can diminish a patient’s ability to walk, stand up, move around, and remain seated for extended periods. 

Can an MRI Show Radiculopathy?

An MRI can show radiculopathy. It’s considered the gold standard of imaging modalities to diagnose radiculopathy. 

Generally, an MRI is used to confirm a radiculopathy diagnosis, even if the doctor is confident of the diagnosis after a physical examination. MRIs can clearly display nerve impingement in the spine and even show any structural lesions that are irritating the affected nerve. This makes MRI scanning an invaluable tool for spinal specialists as they diagnose radiculopathy and other conditions that affect spinal nerves.

What Is the Most Common Cause of Radiculopathy?

The most common cause of radiculopathy is spinal degeneration associated with the normal aging process. Age causes the spinal structures to weaken and lose flexibility. As the spine shifts as a result of these changes, nerve root irritation can occur. 

Whether due to spinal stenosis, spinal disc herniation, or bone spurs, spinal degeneration can narrow the openings where nerve roots exit the spine, known as foramina. This condition may be referred to as foraminal stenosis and can lead to nerve root compression. When a spinal nerve root becomes irritated and inflamed, it can result in symptoms of radiculopathy.  

Besides spinal degeneration, radiculopathy can be caused by a range of other factors, including:

  • Repetitive or stressful physical activities, potentially from jobs that involve heavy lifting or repetitive motions
  • A lack of proper blood flow to the spine
  • Certain chronic conditions that cause nerve damage, like diabetes 

Additionally, genetic predisposition and the presence of other spine disorders can increase one’s risk of developing spinal radiculopathy. 

How is Radiculopathy Treated?

Radiculopathy is treated with rest, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory medication, in most cases. 

In some mild cases, radiculopathy resolves on its own over time, without the need for treatment. However, patients with persistent symptoms that don’t gradually improve should visit a physician for a treatment plan. Some severe cases of radiculopathy require surgery to restore patients’ mobility and quality of life. 

Does Physical Therapy Help Radiculopathy?

Physical therapy helps radiculopathy by strengthening the muscles in the abdomen and back that support the spine. Greater muscle strength in these areas will alleviate some pressure from the irritated nerve root, leading to reduced symptoms. 

Additionally, physical therapy helps radiculopathy by improving the patient’s body mechanics. This facilitates a balanced distribution of weight with day-to-day motions, which helps alleviate pressure on the affected nerve root. 

Physical therapists may also implement a variety of alternative treatment methods to ease radiculopathy symptoms, including massage and dry needling. 

Massage Therapy

Massage helps reduce muscle tension, which can ease the muscle spasms associated with radiculopathy. Additionally, massage offers anti-inflammatory benefits, helping to reduce the swelling and irritation around the nerve root. 

Dry Needling

Dry needling is a treatment that involves inserting thin filiform needles into myofascial trigger points. This process reduces muscle tension, boosts blood circulation, and eases pain. A 2021 study found that trigger point dry needling can effectively decrease pain in patients with lumbar radiculopathy

Your physical therapist may include massage and dry needling in your radiculopathy treatment plan alongside stretching and strengthening exercises. 

Can a Chiropractor Fix Radiculopathy?

A chiropractor can help fix radiculopathy by addressing structural imbalances in the spine. This can alleviate nerve irritation and lessen the patient’s pain. 

A study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine evaluated the clinical outcomes of 162 patients with radiculopathy treated with chiropractic care. Of these patients, 85.5% experienced a resolution of the main subjective radicular complaints after nine treatment sessions. 

What Does Chiropractic Care For Radiculopathy Involve?

Chiropractic adjustments involve a chiropractor manually manipulating the spine to improve its alignment. This process also improves spinal mobility and creates more space around the irritated nerve, allowing blood, oxygen, and healing nutrients to reach the injury.  

Additionally, chiropractors may implement non-surgical spinal decompression to treat radiculopathy. During non-surgical decompression, the chiropractor implements a motorized traction device (a table with a harness and motor) that gently pulls the spine, creating more space between the vertebrae. 

A 2022 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders evaluated the effects of non-surgical decompression therapy with physical therapy for radiculopathy, compared to physical therapy alone. The study found that the combination of non-surgical spinal decompression therapy and physical therapy was statistically and clinically more effective than physical therapy alone for lumbar radiculopathy patients. It was more effective for improving lumbar range of motion, functional disability, quality of life, and back muscle endurance. 

What Can a Neurologist Do for Radiculopathy?

A neurologist can establish a treatment plan to restore sensation and alleviate pain for radiculopathy patients. 

Neurologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of nerve, brain, and spinal cord disorders. They may recommend physical therapy, chiropractic care, medication, or even surgery to resolve radiculopathy symptoms. 

Surgery for Radiculopathy

For patients whose radiculopathy doesn’t improve with several months of conservative treatment, spinal decompression surgery may be recommended. 

During this procedure, the portion of a vertebra impinging on the nerve root is trimmed away. This can provide dramatic relief from radiculopathy symptoms while giving the irritated nerve space to heal.

Traditionally, spinal fusion back surgery has been performed in conjunction with spinal decompression. Spinal fusion is used to stabilize the spine at the point of the operation, preventing future injury and discomfort. Unfortunately, spinal fusion also comes with its own risks and complications. 

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Spinal fusion eliminates the natural independent motion of the fused vertebrae, which can compromise patients’ ability to enjoy various physical activities. This procedure may also contribute to the deterioration of adjacent vertebrae, creating the risk of future back pain and neurological symptoms.

Spinal Fusion Alternatives for Lumbar Radiculopathy

Today, there’s an alternative to spinal fusion for lumbar radiculopathy: the TOPS™ (Total Posterior Spine) System implant. This revolutionary device preserves the natural motion of the spine and allows movement in all directions.

Clinical studies have shown that it provides superior clinical outcomes for patients with chronic lumbar spine disorders like radiculopathy, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. It has been shown in clinical studies around the world to provide better clinical outcomes than spinal fusion

Regain your mobility with Premia Spine! Contact us now

With major medical advances rapidly being released, patients must remain up-to-date on the latest treatment options for chronic back pain. Talk to a spine specialist in your area to learn more about emerging therapies like the TOPS™ System.