Pinched Nerve of the Back

By Gregory C. Keller, MD

Pinched Nerve of the Back

Pinched nerve of the back is when one of the spinal nerves is compressed as it exits the spinal canal. This typically presents as sciatica or pain radiating down the buttock, posterior thigh, and as far as the calf or even the foot. This can be accompanied by loss of sensation or numbness. Weakness may occur in the leg.  The pain is usually sharp, shooting, or radiating. This pain can occasionally be severe or intolerable.


Pinched human sciatic nerve

The usual source of the “pinching” of the nerve is either a disc herniation or prolapse versus a more gradual onset due to spinal stenosis. Other causes include cyst formation or, rarely, cancer.  A common misunderstanding is that back pain itself is due to a pinched nerve. The pinched nerve is usually a symptom of the back issue.  The pinched nerve leads to symptoms in the leg or foot.

Pinched Nerve in the Back Treatment

The treatment for this is first to find the source of the sciatica. Once the cause is discovered and treatment can be directed at that.  This can consist of medication, physical therapy, injections of steroid (epidural steroid injection), or surgery. Only surgery can directly decompress the nerve root. The other treatments are meant to obtain symptom relief long enough to allow the body to heal itself, which usually happens. In fact, over 90% of sciatic episodes will resolve without specific treatment and certainly without surgery.

Illustration showing how a herniated disc can result in a pinched nerve in the back. JOI Rehab

Illustration explaining a Pinched Nerve In the Back

Physical Therapy usually consists of soft tissue mobilization, modalities, flexibility and range of motion exercises.  It is also important to improve the strength and endurance of the abdominal muscle groups.  This is done with lumbar stabilization exercises and dynamic stabilization exercises.

Do Pinched Nerves Go Away on Their Own? How Long Does it Take?

Most of the time, Lower Back Pain or a “Pinched Nerve” in the lower back resolves in 6 to 10 weeks. The inflammation which causes the pain typically calms in that time. In some cases, the pain may last longer and may have more severe symptoms, such as loss of sensation or strength in the part of the leg.

By: Andrew Heideman, PT, ATC

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