“It feels like a trapped nerve…” (But is it?)

Folk often say this to me when they feel a sharp pain with small movements in the neck and lower back.  But sharp pains are common and come from other problems too.

Let’s start with facet joint irritation.  Each joint in your spine has two surfaces (facets) that slide and glide around on each other as you move.  If this are irritated, say from whiplash by being slammed against each other too hard they will give a sharp pain. Even sharper perhaps is when part of the capsule lining the joint gets caught between these surfaces.   That’ll also give you spasm and make it next to impossible to turn your head one way.  It’ll probably also make you hold your head to one side to help open up the joint and relieve the pinch on the capsule. Joint problems in the low back often also irritate the soft tissues around the upper buttock area and poking your finger in the area can feel sharp.  


True nerve pain

Nerve pain tends to travel in a line following the nerve and is different from other pains in being more burning in character.  Intercostal nerve pain runs between the ribs, so runs from the back around the side to the front of the chest. Radial nerve pain runs down the back of the arm and into the forearm. Sciatica can feel like an electric sort of discomfort, and sometimes like a tight painful band that doesn’t want to let go.  It remains irritable and, frustratingly, doesn’t like to stretch or be stretched.  And muscles affected by nerve pain often aren’t grateful for a deep massage either!  


The pain pattern isn’t a slam dunk for diagnosis!

Of course,  a torn hamstring would share some of the same characteristics as sciatica, like where the pain is, so we can’t jump to early conclusions just going by the pain. If you had  torn the muscle, chances are that you’d remember when you did it, so that would be something of a giveaway. In many cases the skin over the muscles related to an irritated nerve will feel much more sensitive to quite light touch or pressure than on the other side.  I experienced that last year with a pinched nerve in the neck.  Call me delicate, but even the pillow was irritating!  And there was hardly any position I could put my arm in which would relieve the burning into my shoulder. In many cases though, nerve pain can be alleviated (or aggravated) by specific positioning of the arm, leg or body because this changes the pressure on the nerve.        

Posted in Adults