Nerve Irritation 101

It’s sometimes difficult to judge how much  people who aren’t osteopaths or physios know or don’t know about the body.   So I thought it might be useful to do a couple of posts on nerve pain just in case.  Maybe next time I’ll go into a few typical nerve problems.  But if you haven’t already seen it you might be interested in my last post where I talked about a patient who came to me with a profoundly weak right arm.  

So, here goes.

If a disc (or anything) presses on a nerve hard enough, you’ll find changes in the muscles that are linked to that nerve because everything the muscle feels or does has to be via a nerve.  Sometimes these changes are only in sensation – the person gets pins and needles, tingling or numbness.  Other times the change affects power.  And eventually this can lead to muscle wasting, where the affected muscle looks less developed than on the other side.

If all that sounds a bit grim, the good news is that in most cases recovery is possible unless the nerve is totally severed or there’s some actual nerve disease.


Things that can press on nerves:

  • A bulging disc
  • Fluid pressure.  For example, inflammation that builds up in a confined space and which can’t drain out of the area easily.  Incidentally, nerves can be irritated just by the chemical ingredients in the inflammatory fluid without any compression being present
  • Bone.  As we age we often get bits of bone forming (sometimes called spurs), irregularly in and around joints.  They sometimes form in the tunnels for the nerves as they leave the spine, which reduces the space for them and occasionally actually pinch them
  • Broken bone, as a piece moves out of position
  • Scar tissue.  For example, from an operation.  Scar tissue is relatively inelastic and can form around a nerve in a tight knit that ‘strangles’ it.
  • A tight muscles when the nerve travels through it.  The effect is much the same as with scar tissue, but easier to treat and stretch
  • Scarier (but much rarer) stuff, like tumors or cysts that grow in the area and take up limited space and push on adjacent structures  like nerves

One thing I haven’t mentioned in that list is a fall or impact to the body.  That’s because the nerve irritation is from a direct blow.  I’ve had first hand experience of this when I fell off a paddle board in very shallow water and landed heavily and directly on my left hip on hard compacted sand. Apart from the burning pain and extensive bruising in the area, I also developed numbness – I couldn’t really feel a patch of my skin if  touched lightly.  I also eventually noticed a dimple in the area which wasn’t on the other side – a sign that the muscle had wasted or shrunk in the area.  The area has since recovered.  

Chin up!

Nerve pain tends to be over self diagnosed by people I see.  What many of them think to be nerve pain is usually referred pain, for example pain felt in the buttock or around the hip which is actually coming from a joint in the low back. Whatever the cause of your problem (if you have one), remember that Common things occur commonly, which means that it’s not as likely to be serious as it is to be something fairly typical and relatively easier to treat.

Posted in Adults