Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Cervical radiculopathy is a diagnosis that signifies that a cervical nerve root is being inflamed, pinched, or irritated as the nerve exits the spine before it moves into the shoulder, arm, and hand. In today’s blog post were going to discuss what causes cervical radiculopathy and what are your options for treatment with physical therapy.

Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms

Most people will complain of tingling, numbness, or burning into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand. Symptoms should only be present on one side of the body. If symptoms are present in both arms it’s indicative that something more serious is occurring and you should seek immediate medical attention from your doctor. 

Tingling, numbness, and burning sensations are telling signs that a nerve is being irritated. If there is muscle weakness present it’s a sign the nerve is being compressed. Weakness is a clue that something more severe is occurring which should be addressed sooner rather than later as it can lead to permanent and irreversible damage.

Because the nerve exits the cervical spine as it traverses down the arm and into the hand, these symptoms can present anywhere throughout the arm. Some people will feel tingling, numbness, or burning into the hand while others will only feel it into the upper arm.  

Cervical Radiculopathy Causes

As stated above, cervical radiculopathy is caused by an inflamed, pinched, or irritated cervical nerve. With that said, there are many underlying causes for this problem. Most people will be told their symptoms are a result of:

Herniated Disc and/or Bulging Disc

Because the cervical nerves exit the spine a herniated disc or bulging disc can impede their line of travel. When a herniated or bulging disc is present it can press on the nerve which then causes cervical radiculopathy symptoms. However, many people who have nerve symptoms and a herniated or bulging disc don’t require surgery. It’s important for you to know that science has proven that nearly all people with a herniated/bulging disc don’t suffer from any pain. If you’ve been diagnosed with a herniated or bulging disc please see the differential diagnosis below. Most people can overcome the pain without meds, surgery, or injections.

Pinched Nerve

A pinched nerve can become pinched anywhere along its path. You can have a pinched nerve in neck, first rib, pec minor muscle, at the elbow, or the carpal tunnel. Finding a movement expert, such as a physical therapist, can rule out any one of the areas as the root cause of the pinched nerve.

Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease occurs when the disc between the vertebrae becomes smaller over time. This has been shown to be natural aging (as in everyone has degenerative discs as they age). However, if the disc becomes severely degenerated the spine can pinch the nerve as it exits the vertebrae. If this is truly the cause of cervical radiculopathy you should feel symptoms in both arms. If you only complain of symptoms into one arm then this is almost certainly not the cause (even if you’ve been told it is).

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a term that means there is narrowing in the spine. Essentially, it means there is narrowing in the canals where the nerves exit the spine. Like degenerative disc disease, if this is the true cause of your symptoms you should feel symptoms in both arms, not just one. If you have spinal stenosis and don’t have symptoms in both arms your problem isn’t spinal stenosis, it’s something else (see below).

Cervical Radiculopathy Differential Diagnosis

What can present as symptoms similar to cervical radiculopathy isn’t always caused by a pinched nerve in the neck. Here are some other causes of tingling, numbness, or burning into the arm and/or hands.

Referred Pain From the Rotator Cuff

Referred pain is something we see frequently at our physical therapy clinic in Durham, NC. This is a phenomenon that occurs when the pain which is felt is coming from somewhere else. Tingling, numbness, or burning, into the arm and/or hand is probably the most common referred pain symptoms we see. 

We verify this as the cause by lightly pressing on the rotator cuff and waiting for 2-3 minutes. If this is the cause of the symptoms, the patient will feel a light sensation (typically tingling, numbness, or burning) into their arm and/or hand. The image below depicts research studies that showed this phenomenon of the rotator cuff muscles causing symptoms into the arm wrist, and hand.

Nerve Tension Testing

When the nerve is compromised like it is with cervical radiculopathy symptoms we need to rule out the possibility of the nerve want wanting to accept load. A healthy nerve should be able to be stretched and not become tight and/or painful. There are 3 main branches of nerves throughout the upper limb (median, ulnar, and radial nerves). There are simple tests that place these nerves on stretch. If the patient complains of pain, tightness, or nerve symptoms this is indicative of a positive test and should be treated.

Stiff Cervical Spine

Many times pain and nerve symptoms are a sign that the body feels threatened with one or more movements. A stiff cervical spine is extremely likely to be present in people who suffer from cervical radiculopathy symptoms. We have found that cervical extension (looking up) and cervical rotation (to the painful side) are the most likely to be problematic. A stiff cervical spine should be addressed as it can very likely be the cause of the symptoms. 

Cervical Radiculopathy Treatment

As you can see by now there are many different causes for tingling, numbness, or burning into the arms and/or hands. A thorough assessment of the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers should be completed. Furthermore, nerve tension testing and referred pain from the rotator cuff should be ruled out as the cause. 

From our experience, nearly everyone with cervical radiculopathy can avoid surgery and pain meds with the right treatment approach and physical therapist. If you’re suffering from this problem and want help from our physical therapy clinic in Durham, NC then we invite you to schedule a complimentary phone call today. 

Medical Disclaimer:

All information on this website is intended for instruction and informational purposes only. The authors are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result. Significant injury risk is possible if you do not follow due diligence and seek suitable professional advice about your injury. No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied on this website.