Radiculopathy: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

18 November, 2020
If you believe you have a radiculopathy, it’s best to go to the doctor. An accurate diagnosis is crucial to choose the appropriate treatment. Discover what can cause it and the symptoms that help you recognize it here!

You may have heard the term “radiculopathy” before but don’t know what it means. To understand this condition, you must first get to know a little about the spine.

The vertebral column or spine is a bony structure formed by vertebrae that, in turn, protect bones and allow you to move freely. The vertebrae have holes on each side, which the nerves that go to the different parts of the body come out of.

The part of the nerve that comes out of the vertebrae is called “nerve root”. Radiculopathy is nerve compression, precisely in the nerve root. What causes it? What are its clinical manifestations? In this article, we’ll answer these questions and inform you of the existing treatment options.

The causes of radiculopathy

A woman with radiculopathy.
It’s important to clarify the cause of the radiculopathy, since the treatment depends on it.

Radiculopathy may be due to:

  • Intervertebral disc problems
  • Osteophytes
  • Thickening of the ligaments in the area
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Radiation
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Tumor in the area
  • Severe scoliosis
  • Meningeal disease

Any of these conditions can reduce the space the nerve passes through and compress it.

You should also read: Learn All about Cervical Spinal Nerves

Symptoms

Because the problem occurs in the nerve root, the symptoms usually manifest in the part of the body that corresponds to the affected nerve. In general, the symptoms are usually a combination of:

  • Pain – in this case, “nerve root pain”
  • Muscle weakness or difficulty controlling muscles
  • Increased sensitivity to pain in the area (hyperalgesia)
  • Numbness and tingling

The location of these symptoms depends on the site of the radiculopathy:

Cervical radiculopathy

It corresponds to the cervical spine. The nerves in this area control the muscles and skin sensitivity of the neck and arms. In cervical radiculopathy, the patient often perceives the symptoms in the arms, shoulders, or neck.

For example, cervical radiculopathy may cause pain and weakness in the forearms and numbness in some fingers.

Thoracic radiculopathy

This corresponds to the thoracic spine. These nerves control the muscles and skin sensitivity of the chest and ribs. Sometimes, medical professionals confuse it with herpes zoster or shingles. This is the least common of all.

Lumbar radiculopathy

This corresponds to the lumbar spine. The nerves in this area control the muscles and skin sensitivity from the buttocks and hips to the feet. Therefore, patients perceive the symptoms of lumbar radiculopathy in their lower back, hips, legs, and feet.

In the most severe cases, sphincter control is compromised. If the compression occurs at the output of the sciatic nerve, the most common symptom is pain from the lower back to the soles of the feet, through the back of the leg. This is known as sciatica.

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Treatment

A woman getting physical therapy.
Physical therapy and exercise may be enough for some patients with radiculopathy. However, others require medication and other interventions.

Doctors should direct the treatment at resolving the cause of the nerve compression because, if the nerve starts working properly again, the symptoms will disappear.

The vast majority of patients with radiculopathy respond well to physical therapy and exercise. However, in some cases, patients require medication when their pain is disabling.

The time from the onset of symptoms until the problem is solved can vary greatly from patient to patient, as it depends on two factors:

  • The severity of the symptoms. If the patient is in a lot of pain, firstly, doctors seek to reduce it and then proceed to treat the cause.
  • The cause of the nerve compression. A fracture or a tumor may require a surgical approach, which modifies the subsequent treatment. In addition, the resolution time varies. On the other hand, medical professionals can treat a disc problem with a good exercise program.

Although two people have the same symptoms, they may require very different treatments. Therefore, it’s important to get a medical diagnosis. The sooner the cause is determined, the more successful the treatment will be.

If you believe you’re suffering from radiculopathy, go see a doctor so they can evaluate you and help you decide on a treatment plan.