If you scrape your knee, your knee hurts, and if you sprain your ankle, your ankle hurts. So, it’s logical to assume that when your arm or hand hurts, you’ve likely injured your arm or hand. But sometimes arm/hand pain originates in a far away location — your neck.
In a condition called cervical radiculopathy, the nerves in your neck can trick you into assuming you have a hand injury. Dr. Patrick McNulty, our award-winning double board-certified orthopedic surgeon, sees this condition often here at McNulty Spine in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada. If you have unexplained hand, arm, or shoulder pain, he can evaluate your symptoms and treat the underlying cause — which may very well be in your neck. Here’s what you need to know.
Cervical radiculopathy 101
Your spine includes three distinct sections: the lower portion is called the lumbar region, the middle section is called the thoracic region, and the top part is called the cervical spine. The vertebrae that comprise this neck portion of your spine are numbered C1-C7.
Running in and out of your cervical vertebrae are eight pairs of nerve roots, which branch out to your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. If anything damages those nerves in your neck or causes them to become inflamed, you may feel the effects at any point along the nerve path — including your arms, hands, and fingers.
You might feel a shooting or stabbing pain that comes on suddenly and goes away just as unexpectedly. You may also notice that certain movements or head and neck positions trigger the pain or make it worse or better. Numbness, weakness, and tingling are also classic symptoms.
Common causes of cervical radiculopathy
Anything that compresses the nerves in your neck can lead to cervical radiculopathy, but the most common culprits are:
Herniated cervical disc
Between each vertebra in your spine, there is a donut-shaped disc filled with fluid that cushions the discs and prevents bone from rubbing on bone. Although spinal discs have a tough outer shell (the annulus), it can rupture under stress or trauma and allow some of the gel-like fluid (the nucleus) to leak out or bulge.
This is called a herniated disc, and it’s notorious for irritating and pressing on nearby nerves. If you have a herniated cervical disc, it’s very likely you’ll feel pain, tingling, or numbness in your hands and/or arms.
Cervical foraminal stenosis
Every time you bend, twist, or reach, your spine makes countless movements to make it possible. To keep your nerve roots safe from impingement during all this activity, each vertebra has a small opening in the bone called a foramen, where the nerves exit freely.
Unfortunately, if this space narrows — a condition called cervical spinal stenosis — the nerves get pinched and you get cervical radiculopathy. As you age, your ligaments get thicker and your discs gradually degenerate, the two most common causes of cervical spinal stenosis.
Getting relief from cervical radiculopathy
The treatment Dr. McNulty recommends for cervical radiculopathy depends entirely on the underlying cause.
In many cases of mild cervical radiculopathy, physical therapy may be all you need to overcome your symptoms. Our specialists can help you strengthen your supporting muscles, learn pain-relieving stretches, and improve your posture to allow healing. Cold and heat therapy are also effective if the problem is inflammation.
If your symptoms don’t abate with these conservative treatments, Dr. McNulty may offer a steroid injection under live x-ray to send anti-inflammatory medication straight to the source.
In severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary. And in that instance, you’re in the best hands with Dr. McNulty. With more than three decades of experience, he is one of the nation’s leading orthopedic surgeons and can skillfully fuse and/or reconstruct your spinal anatomy to stop your pain and help you return to normal activities again.
To find out if your arm/hand pain is connected to a problem in your neck, schedule an appointment with Dr. McNulty online or call our friendly staff today. We have two locations to serve you in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada.