Shoulder pain is a very common complaint. And, this discomfort can develop from a variety of different orthopedic sources, such as arthritis, tendinitis, torn cartilage—and more. However, perhaps the most common cause of shoulder pain is a pinched nerve. (In fact, medical experts often refer to a pinched nerve in the shoulder as cervical radiculopathy.)
Similarly, a nerve in the shoulder may become compressed for any number of reasons. For example, bone spurs—bony protrusions which form around our spinal discs—can pinch the nerves that radiate outward from our spine. Furthermore, our spinal discs act as shock absorbers between our vertebrae. Yet, they tend to weaken with age and overuse. When this happens, it can lead to the formation of bone spurs that impinge upon our spinal nerves. If a nerve in the neck becomes pinched, then shoulder pain can occur.
Causes of a Pinched Nerve
A pinched nerve in the shoulder arises from material pressing on the nerves that extend outward from the spinal column and toward the neck and shoulder. However, the source of this encroaching material can vary. Outcroppings of bone, disc protrusions, or inflamed soft tissues can all impinge upon our nerves.
When it comes to pinched nerves in the shoulder, we are referring to the cervical spine specifically. In the cervical spine, there are nerves that extend out to transmit signals to and from the brain, as well as to other parts of the body.
Some common causes of pinched nerves in the shoulder include:
- Herniated Discs: Sometimes, discs may distend outward, pressing on adjacent nerves. This type of pain is more noticeable during activities such as twisting, bending, and lifting.
- Disc Degeneration: As time goes on, the gel-like discs located between each vertebra will wear down. Because of this, the bones will move closer together, rubbing against one another or the adjacent nerves. In some instances, a person’s body will try to overcompensate for this with the formation of bone spurs. These may also press on the nerves in the shoulder.
- Shoulder Injuries: When a person experiences an injury from a sports activity or accident, it may lead to a herniated disc or tissue inflammation. Both of these conditions can lead to anatomical material pressing on nearby nerves.
Your doctor will be able to determine the cause of your injury based on physical examinations and imaging tests. If you have any questions, please refer to your doctor as he or she will provide you with any information that you need.
Signs & Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve in the Shoulder
If you have shoulder pain, then you will need a doctor to perform a thorough physical examination of your neck and shoulder. Doing so should diagnose the underlying problem. That being said, certain signs and symptoms may help your doctor diagnose your condition with relative ease.
A pinched nerve typically causes pain, numbness, or discomfort in the shoulder area. Other symptoms that may accompany these changes include:
- Muscle weakness in the shoulder; this weakness may also extend into the hand and arm.
- Neck pain—especially when performing certain actions such as tilting the head or turning from side to side.
- Changes in sensation on the side of the shoulder affected by the pinched nerve
- Numbness and tingling—especially in the fingers or hand
However, rarely do these cases involve arm or hand symptoms. In addition, you may also experience a pins-and-needles sensation in your shoulder. This numbness can make it more difficult to lift objects using your shoulder joint.
Diagnosing Shoulder Pain For Pinched Nerves
Depending on the location of your symptoms, an orthopedist will be able to tell you exactly which nerve is causing your symptoms. That being said, receiving a comprehensive physical exam of the neck and shoulders is also important.
To begin, your doctor will likely assess your reflexes, strength, and sensation. In addition to this, you may also be asked to perform certain stretches, as this will demonstrate the activities that trigger your pain.
It is extremely important that you provide your doctor with as much information about your symptoms as possible. You should let your doctor know when the symptoms first started and what exactly causes them to manifest. In addition to explaining what makes your shoulder hurt, you should also be sure to disclose what makes the pain subside. Your doctor may also be interested in whether or not you have been exercising more frequently or performing other similar activities.
If you have recently sustained a neck or shoulder injury, you will want to disclose as many details about this as you possibly can. Nerves in your spine affect multiple aspects of your health. You should especially let your doctor know if you have noticed any changes in your bowel or bladder function.
Imaging Tests For Pinched Nerve in Shoulder
Imaging tests may include x-rays or an MRI scan. X-rays will provide details about the bones in your spine, but will not reveal soft tissues such as nerves or discs. That being said, an x-ray will still tell your doctor how much narrowing has occurred between the vertebrae and whether or not bone spurs have formed.
An MRI is better utilized than X-rays for diagnosing a pinched nerve. This is because MRIs reveal more than just bone structures with their imaging. They also show the health of the nerves as well as the discs. And, most importantly, MRIs do not use radiation.
For pain specifically located in the shoulder, an x-ray of the joint may be all you need in order to detect signs of bone injury or arthritis. MRIs and ultrasounds are better for showing soft tissues, which can show whether the pain is being caused by tendons or ligaments.
Cervical Pinched Nerve Treatment
There are generally two types of treatment in medicine: conservative interventions and surgery. Surgery can be additionally broken down into two categories: minimally invasive procedures and open surgery. Most doctors will try to exhaust conservative options first. If these fail, then your doctor will propose surgery. Not all cases, however, can be remedied by minimally invasive procedures. Some patients will nevertheless require traditional open surgery for their treatment. The method selected all depends on the precise nature of your case.
Examples of conservative options include physical therapy or anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Injections or steroids may also be useful, but they often require multiple injections in order to be effective. And, they do not constitute permanent solutions. Short-term bracing may also be useful for some patients. But again, it all depends on the specific case.
If your case is severe enough, then your doctor may recommend surgery—especially if bone spurs are involved. Because pinched nerves are easily diagnosed and treated, you should always seek out medical help to have your shoulder evaluated. Seeing a qualified shoulder specialist will make a world of difference when it comes to ensuring a speedy recovery and optimal surgical outcomes.
If you believe you have cervical radiculopathy, then please get in touch with NJSO at (855) 586-2615. Your condition is treatable—and you deserve only the best treatment! Our doctors will ensure that you will be put on a treatment plan that suits your specific needs. Don’t hesitate, contact us today!