Do I have a pinched nerve?

# This article was published in the July 2017

For bookings or further information on Wellness Embodied physiotherapy services, call 0488 588 670, or visit http://www.wellnessembodiedcairns.comcairns-life_orig Issue of Cairns Life magazine #

Ah, the nervous system. Essentially our body’s computer, it consists of the brain, spinal cord and a massive interconnecting system of nerves ranging in size from as thick as a finger to as thin as a piece of thread. They travel beside, to and through muscles, veins and arteries, bones, ligaments, organs, tendons, fascia and skin. Their role is to carry signals to and from the brain, which then decides how to respond to these signals. A simple way of illustrating this: if you put your hand on something hot, a bunch of sensory nerves communicates this to the brain; the brain sends a message back to your motor nerves and your motor nerves stimulate your muscles to move your hand, ensuring you don’t get burnt.

For the majority of people, this process functions normally, as it should. But sometimes, the nervous system decides to act like that annoying laptop with a keyboard which selectively turns itself on and off, even though technicians can find nothing wrong with it. In the case of some of the patients I treat, this means unusual pain patterns (“My head hurts and then I get a pain in my left ankle and it shoots to my big toe”), constant pain that seems out of proportion to findings on X-rays and MRIs, or weird and wonderful symptoms of a nervous system that’s ‘out of whack’- including stress, anxiety, gut issues and more.

A nerve that is pinched or compressed essentially has at least part of its connection to the brain, via the spinal cord, cut off. This means the signals just don’t get through- there is always a change in reflexes at that level and changes in either strength and/or sensation. Physiotherapy assessment is really important to determine whether this is the case; following this, specific joint mobilisations to release compression can often be really useful.

More often than not, clients with shooting pains or tingling down an arm or leg will describe it to me as a pinched nerve, often telling me about some changes in their spine which were picked up by imaging. And more often than not, what’s happening is that the nerve is simply overly sensitised. This can happen for lots of reasons- inflammation, imbalances and poor muscle control of joint movements, sickness, whiplash. The good news is it’s generally very manageable with education and correct treatment- physiotherapy is a vital part of this.

Signs that your ‘pinched nerve’ is really just a nerve that’s inflamed or sensitised include:

  • Worse pain in the morning, or difficulty sleeping at night ( your nervous tissue likes to move!)
  • Your pain gets better with gentle activity
  • It may respond well to other medications, particularly some anti-depressants.
  • Your pain changes. It may be worse when your muscles fatigue, if you’re tired or stressed, or in certain positions. This is great news for physiotherapists- if your pain can be made worse, we believe we can also make it better!

There’s lots more signs which a physiotherapist skilled in nerve tissue pain and chronic pain may pick up on assessment; just like we’re all different, so are our bodies and nervous systems! So for an assessment and treatment process that’s individualised for you, why not come and see us at Wellness Embodied?

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