We’ve all experienced neck pain at some point or the other, whether it’s from sleeping all twisted up or staying hunched up at the workstation. But if you have been experiencing a sharp or burning pain that starts in the neck and travels down your arm, tingling sensation in your hands or fingers, muscle weakness in your hand, shoulder, or arm, and loss of sensation, you may have pinched a nerve in your neck. This condition, known as cervical radiculopathy, occurs when a nerve in your neck is irritated or compressed at the point where it branches off from your spinal cord.
- Cervical radiculopathy is usually caused by age-related wear and tear in the spine.
- In young people, a herniated disk injury can lead to cervical radiculopathy.
- Sudden or awkward neck movements such as craning or extending your neck might increase the pain.
While most patients get better on their own over time, your doctor may prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), oral corticosteroids, or steroid injections for pain. In some severe cases, surgery might be recommended.1 Fortunately, a host of natural and alternative treatments can also help you tackle a pinched nerve. While some of these will still need your doctor or physiotherapist’s go-ahead and guidance, you may find them to be sound options to ease the symptoms of this condition.
1. Apply Ice Or Heat
Applying a warm or cold compress at the point of pain might soothe any inflammation and give you some relief. For a cold compress, wrap a bag of frozen peas in a tea towel and apply it to your neck thrice a day, 5 minutes at a time. For a warm compress, wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and apply it to your neck for about 20 minutes, 2–3 times a day. See which of these treatments work best for you and then pick the one that you can continue using for longer.2
2. Correct Your Posture
Good posture can relieve pain caused due to cervical radiculopathy by reducing any pressure on your neck. Your head weighs around 10–12 pounds and it’s your neck’s job to support it. Carrying your head in a way that puts the least possible weight on the neck is important to avoid neck pain. Here are some useful tips on posture that you should keep in mind:
- Don’t tilt your head forward: You’re likely to handle the weight of your head best when it’s tilted back slightly because this way its weight gets evenly distributed over the spine. On the other hand, tilting your head forward puts more pressure on your neck. In fact, tilting it forward by about 15 degrees – a crime that we’re all guilty of when we look at our cell phones – can magnify its weight to about 27 pounds. Studies have found that reducing the “forward head posture,” can resolve radiculopathy and reduce pain caused by it.3
- Raise your workstation: Another easy way of alleviating pressure on your spine is by raising your workstation to eye level to alleviate any pressure on your spine. So, be sure to adjust your workstation and bring your phone up to eye level so you don’t have to bend your neck to look down. You could also try a standing desk.4
- While sitting down, make sure you sit back in your chair and place a rolled-up towel in the curve of your back to support it. Also, keep your shoulders and your hips aligned and don’t jut your chin forward.
- While standing, make sure the chin is tucked in and your shoulders are not hunched.
- Don’t sleep on your stomach: Sleeping on your stomach can strain your neck. Instead, lie on your side with your knees slightly bent.5 6
3. Use A Soft Cervical Collar
Soft cervical collars are commonly used to deal with neck pain caused by a pinched nerve. These collars are essentially padded rings which wrap around your neck. They restrict neck motion and allow neck muscles to rest. This helps reduce the pinching of nerve roots during the neck’s movement.
However, long-term use of soft collars can weaken neck muscles, so this remedy should only be used for short periods. Speak to your doctor to see if a soft cervical collar is appropriate for you and how long you should use it for.7
4. Sleep With A Cervical Pillow
Special pillows, known as cervical pillows, can help ease pain at night, allowing you a good night’s sleep. These pillows are designed to ensure that your neck maintains the right curvature as you sleep. This, in turn, decreases the irritation of your nerve roots. You can get these pillows from your therapist or at medical stores.8
5. Explore Cervical Traction
Cervical traction involves gentle stretching of the muscles and joints of your neck and is believed to reduce any pressure on the nerve root that’s been affected. However, it is generally put into use only after severe muscle pain has abated. During the treatment, the patient is asked to place their head and neck in a cervical traction device following which 8–12 pounds of tension is applied for 15–20 minutes by a physiotherapist, chiropractor, or massage therapist. And while there are cervical traction kits which can be used at home as well, this remedy can cause harm if used incorrectly. Hence, be sure to consult your doctor before you try cervical traction.9
6. Get Physical Therapy
Your physical therapist may advise you to try exercises which strengthen the muscles in your neck and enhance their range of motion to ease pain. Your exercise program may start out with gentle stretching exercises or exercises that improve range of motion and gradually move to strength training and more active range of motion exercises.10 Here are some easy exercises that you might want to check out.
Cervical Retraction Exercise
Move your head backward as far as possible while making sure that your eyes and head remain level. Slowly bring your head back to the original position.
Cervical Extension Exercise
Retract your cervical spine as shown in the exercise above and move your chin up as far as possible so that your head falls back. Then move your head from right to left 2–3 times. Bring your head back to the center and return to the starting position.
Scapular Strengthening Exercise
While you are seated or standing, squeeze your shoulder blades together. However, make sure that you don’t shrug, so as to not activate the upper trapezius muscle during this exercise.
7. Consume Fish Oil
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually used to treat neck pain caused by cervical radiculopathy. But if you’re looking for a natural alternative, fish oil may help. It has omega-3 fatty acids which give it anti-inflammatory properties. One study observed that people who suffered from neck or back pain experienced relief when they took omega 3 fatty acids. In fact, 59% of the study’s participants were able to discontinue the NSAID that was prescribed to them for tackling pain.
Research also indicates that omega-3 fatty acids are comparable to the commonly used NSAID ibuprofen when it comes to pain relief. You could either eat fatty fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, and sardine which naturally contain omega-3 fatty acids or opt for a fish oil supplement after getting your doctor’s go-ahead.11 12
8. Go For Massage Therapy
Therapeutic massage has been shown to be effective at reducing pain and improving range of motion in people suffering from a pinched nerve. A trained physiotherapist can work with you on your therapeutic massage intervention.
This massage might involve soft tissue manipulation, which is a technique that aims at improving the mobility of stiff and tensed soft tissues. It is done by applying concentrated pressure to the point of pain by kneading with the fingers, knuckles, or elbows.
Alternatively, you might only need to massage and stretch your connective tissues and go through facilitated stretching.13
9. Try Acupuncture
Acupuncture, which stems from traditional Chinese medicine, might relieve the symptoms of a pinched neck. This practice maintains that your lifeforce or “Qi” flows through your body along pathways called meridians and a blockage or imbalance in this flow of energy lies at the root of disease. Acupuncture aims at removing blockage by inserting fine needles at particular body points called acupoints to stimulate them. Case studies have reported that when acupuncture is used along with treatments like physiotherapy, it can not only improve symptoms but may even lead to the receding of the condition, though such instances are not very common. However, make sure you go to a reliable practitioner for treatment.14
Besides all of the above, make sure to get adequate rest and avoid any jarring movement that might aggravate the symptoms. Also do visit your doctor regularly to track the progress of your healing process.
|↑1, ↑7||Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.|
|↑2||Neck pain. National Health Service.|
|↑3||Wickstrom, Bret M., Paul A. Oakley, and Deed E. Harrison. “Non-surgical relief of cervical radiculopathy through reduction of forward head posture and restoration of cervical lordosis: a case report.” Journal of physical therapy science 29, no. 8 (2017): 1472-1474.|
|↑4||Neck pain: Core exercises can help. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑5||Self Management of Neck (Cervical) Pain. NHS Foundation Trust.|
|↑6||Back Pain. The University of Washington.|
|↑8||Cervical Radiculopathy. The University Of Maryland.|
|↑9, ↑10||Eubanks, Jason David. “Cervical radiculopathy: nonoperative management of neck pain and radicular symptoms.” Am Fam Physician 81, no. 1 (2010): 33-40.|
|↑11||Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑12||Maroon, Joseph Charles, and Jeffrey W. Bost. “ω-3 Fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain.” Surgical neurology 65, no. 4 (2006): 326-331.|
|↑13||Avery, Rhonda-Marie. “Massage therapy for cervical degenerative disc disease: alleviating a pain in the neck?.” International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork 5, no. 3 (2012): 41.|
|↑14||Kim, Sung-Ha, Man-Young Park, Sang-Mi Lee, Ho-Hyun Jung, Jae-Kyoun Kim, Jong-Deok Lee, Dong-Woung Kim et al. “Acupuncture and Spontaneous Regression of a Radiculopathic Cervical Herniated Disc.” Journal of pharmacopuncture 15, no. 2 (2012): 36.|