Whenever you hear the word “pinch,” you know it’s not going to be good. When you were a kid, getting a pinch sucked, and giving one was basically asking for timeout. And who hasn’t been told they would “just feel a pinch” during some procedure or other, then experienced serious discomfort instead?
It’s no wonder, then, that having a pinched nerve isn’t exactly enjoyable. A pinched nerve happens when something puts too much pressure on one of your nerves, be it surrounding bones, cartilage, muscles, or tendons, the Mayo Clinic explains. This interrupts your nerve’s ability to function, causing pain and a bunch of other not-fun symptoms that can feel totally mystifying.
There are plenty of reasons why you might get a pinched nerve, since basically anything that puts pressure on your nerves can cause one.
Potential causes include having an injury, a health condition like arthritis, and physical stress in one part of your body from repetitive work, the Mayo Clinic says. Pregnancy can also raise your risk, since weight gain can swell nerve pathways, compressing your nerves in the process. Diabetes is another risk factor, since diabetes-induced high levels of sugar and fat in your blood can damage your nerves and the blood vessels that nourish them, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Issues.
Having a pinched nerve may sound really serious, and it can be, but if your nerve is compressed for a short time, you’ll usually be OK once the pressure is relieved through rest or treatment. But if the pressure goes unchecked, you can deal with chronic symptoms and even permanent nerve damage. “It’s always in your best interest to contact your doctor if your symptoms don’t resolve quickly,” Ilan Danan, M.D., a sports neurologist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California, tells SELF.
Since pinched nerves can show up pretty much anywhere on your body, you can feel symptoms all over the place.
Although you can get symptoms of a pinched nerve in many locations on your body, they often show up in your arms, hands, legs, or feet, depending on the location of the nerve compression, A. Nick Shamie, M.D., professor and chief of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery at UCLA Health, tells SELF. These are the big pinched nerve symptoms to look out for:
1. You have pins and needles:
To understand why this happens, you have to know that there are three main types of nerves in your body: sensory nerves, which are responsible for you feeling things, motor nerves, which control voluntary movement of your muscles, and autonomic nerves, which take care of automatic organ-related functions like sweating, regulating your blood pressure, and breathing, per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Your nerves’ job is to transmit signals from one point to another in your body. “Anything that blocks that signal from occurring will result in some manifestation of symptoms,” Dr. Danan says. A pins and needles feeling usually means that a sensory nerve is being compressed, he adds.
2. You have numbness or decreased sensation in one area of your body:
This has a lot to do with pressure causing poor blood flow to the nerve, Dr. Shamie says, offering the example of “being unable to feel your arm in the morning when you wake up because you were lying on it.” Decreased blood flow to your nerves can deprive your nerve cells of oxygen, thus causing issues with the nerves’ ability to fire, he says. As a result, your hand or arm might feel numb until you relieve the pressure that’s blocking the blood flow.
3. It feels like your hand or foot falls asleep a lot:
If you notice that this tends to happen when you sit on your leg or rest your arm a certain way, then it goes away when you move, it’s highly likely that you’re just compressing the nerve temporarily with your position, Dr. Danan says. But if it happens seemingly out of nowhere and you’re not sure why, it’s important to check in with a doctor to see what might be compressing your nerve.
4. You have a sharp, aching, or burning pain, and it might radiate outward:
The can happen because something near the nerve is inflamed and compressing it, or the nerve itself is inflamed, Dr. Shamie says. “It’s your body’s way of alerting you that something is going on,” he adds.
For the record, you’ll probably have pain that’s not in the area where the nerve is being compressed, Dr. Danan says. Instead, you’ll feel it where the nerve ends, like in the lower part of your leg or your hand. Sciatica, which is zapping pain that shoots down the sciatic nerve that begins in your lower back and goes into one or both legs, is a common pinched nerve issue, Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “It can seemingly come out of nowhere, leaving you stunned,” he says.
5. You have muscle weakness in one area of your body:
Remember when we talked about the different types of nerves in your body? Muscle weakness is usually a sign that one of your motor nerves, the ones that carry messages from your brain to your muscles, is pinched, Dr. Danan says. This is generally a signal that the muscle that’s connected with the nerve isn’t being told to operate the way it should.
The thing is that many of these symptoms could also signal other medical conditions, including a stroke, heart attack, multiple sclerosis, and seizures. Unless these symptoms strike in a way that makes sense—like when you’ve kept your leg curled up under you for way too long—and go away when you change whatever is putting pressure on the nerve, you should see a doctor for evaluation. This is especially true if these symptoms come along with anything like coordination issues, trouble breathing, or other signs that this may be more than a pinched nerve.
There’s a wide range of treatments available for a pinched nerve. The best option for you ultimately depends on how severe your nerve compression is.
Doctors will usually recommend that you try resting the area that’s bothering you and see where that gets you, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. If you’re in pain, your doctor may also recommend you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids to help you feel better.
If your symptoms persist, your doctor may encourage you to try physical therapy and, depending on where your pinched nerve is located, possibly recommend you wear a splint or collar for a bit to relieve your symptoms. In more severe cases, you may need surgery to remove pressure from the nerve. Or, if an underlying condition like diabetes is behind your nerve issues, your doctor will advise you on the best steps to keep those nerve problems (and your overall health) under the best control possible.
If your symptoms last for more than a few days and don’t seem to be getting better with rest and OTC pain-relievers, see your doctor again about next steps, Dr. Shamie says. If the pain is so bad that it’s interfering with your ability to live your life—or if it’s coming along with any other symptoms that worry you—it’s time to head to the emergency room for prompt treatment.