Radiculopathy is a condition in which a spinal nerve is compressed or irritated. Radiculopathy can occur in any part of the spine, but most frequently affects the lower back (lumbar radiculopathy) and neck (cervical radiculopathy). Sciatica is another very common form of lumbar radiculopathy.
Radiculopathy is most often caused by a pinched or compressed nerve. Although most commonly caused by aging, radiculopathy is also associated with injury, illness, poor body mechanics and genetic factors. On rare occasion it can be caused by a tumor.
Warning Signs & Symptoms
Pain, weakness, tingling or numbness are common signs of radiculopathy. However, symptoms may vary depending on the location of the compressed nerve.
- Cervical (upper) spine — Pain, weakness, tingling or numbness in the shoulders, arms and hands
- Thoracic (middle) spine — Pain or weakness around the torso, arms, chest, kidneys and lungs
- Lumbar (lower) spine — A very common site of radiating symptoms; they can begin in the lower back and move through the buttocks, legs and toes
Tests to Diagnose Radiculopathy
A medical examination, including health history is performed as a first step in diagnosis. Physicians will obtain x-rays and MRIs as necessary to detect presence of trauma, osteoarthritis, early signs of tumor or infection. CT scans are often performed on patients unable to undergo an MRI.Reasons for this can include pacemakers and other implanted devices.
Radiculopathy is treated conservatively with anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy or chiropractic treatment. Patients are also advised to avoid strenuous activity that strains the neck or back. If patients don’t improve with conservative treatment, interventional procedures such as epidural steroid injections are recommended. Other interventional techniques are available and occasionally surgery is necessary to remove the compression from the affected nerve.
Although usually caused by aging, there are certain lifestyle choices that can decrease the chances of developing radiculopathy, including:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Not smoking
- Practicing proper posture and lifting techniques