What is pinched nerve in the neck?

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Pinched nerve in the neck: Overview

A pinched nerve in the neck happens when a vertebra or disc in the upper part of your spine squeezes a nerve. This can happen because of an injury. Or it can just happen with age.

The changes that happen from an injury or aging may put pressure on a nearby nerve root, pinching it. This causes symptoms such as sharp pain in your neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or back. You may also have tingling or numbness. Sometimes it makes your arm weaker. The symptoms may get worse when you turn your head, cough, or sneeze.

For many people, the symptoms get better over time and finally go away.

Early treatment usually includes medicines for pain and swelling. Sometimes physical therapy and special exercises may help.

How can you care for yourself when you have a pinched nerve in your neck?

  • If you were given a neck brace (cervical collar) to limit neck motion, wear it as instructed for as many days as your doctor tells you to. Do not wear it longer than you were told to. Wearing a brace for too long can make neck stiffness worse and weaken the neck muscles.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • Store your prescription pain medicines where no one else can get to them. When you are done using them, dispose of them quickly and safely. Your local pharmacy or hospital may have a drop-off site.
  • Try heat or ice, whichever feels better. Apply it for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Put a thin cloth between the heat or ice and your skin. You might also try switching between heat and ice.
  • Don't spend too long in one position. Take short breaks to move around and change positions.
  • Wear a seat belt and shoulder harness when you are in a car.
  • Sleep with a pillow under your head and neck that keeps your neck straight.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions for gentle neck-stretching exercises.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can slow healing of your discs. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid activities that may make your symptoms worse. Ask your doctor when you can start doing those activities again.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.