Pinched nerves in the shoulder occur when a nearby structure presses or irritates a nerve from the neck. This can cause pain in the shoulder and numbness in the arm or hand.
Doctors may refer to a pinched nerve in the shoulder that arises from the neck as cervical radiculopathy.
An acute injury or body changes can cause pinched nerves in the shoulder. This article will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment options.
Signs & Symptoms
Pinched nerves in the shoulder can cause pain, numbness or discomfort.
Other symptoms may also be present, such as:
- Changes in feelings are on the same side with the shoulder that hurts
- Muscle weakness in the arm or hand, shoulder, or elbow
- Neck pain, especially when the head is turned from one side to the other
- Numbness or tingling in the fingers and hands
Pinched nerves in the shoulder area are caused by material such as bone, disc protrusions or swelling that puts pressure on nerves extending from the spinal column to the neck and shoulder.
The spinal column is made up of 24 bones, called vertebrae. They are stacked on top of each other and have cushion-like disks that protect them.
The appearance and size of the spine bones are factors that doctors use to divide it into three areas. These are:
- Cervical spine: Consists of the first seven vertebrae.
- Thoracic spine: Consists of 12 middle vertebrae.
- Lumbar spine: Consists of the five last vertebrae.
A pinched nerve in the shoulder affects the cervical spine. Nerves that transmit signals from the brain to the other parts of the body extend from the cervical spine.
Many things can cause pinched nerves in the shoulder:
- Disk wear: The gel-like discs between the cervical vertebrae may start to wear down over time. The result is that the bones may become closer together, rubbing against one another and the nerves. Bony growths called bone spurs can develop on the vertebrae. They can also press on the shoulder nerves.
- Herniated disc: A disk can sometimes stick out and press nerves at the exit of the spinal column. This pain is more noticeable when twists, bends or lifts.
- Acute Injury: An injury can occur from an accident, sports activity, or car accident. This could cause a herniated disc or tissue inflammation that presses against the nerves.
A doctor will usually identify the source of the pinched nerve in the shoulder. This is done by taking a history, performing a physical exam and ordering imaging studies.
What is the best way to diagnose shoulder pain?
Doctors will begin to diagnose shoulder pain in patients by taking a history and performing a physical exam.
The doctor will ask the person what symptoms they have when they notice them and what makes them worse. A doctor will examine the neck, shoulder, and surrounding areas to identify problems.
A doctor may order additional tests to confirm or rule out other conditions. These tests are:
- X-ray or computed tomography (CT scan): These tests give details about spinal bones and help to identify any changes that might be pressing on nerves.
- Magnetic resonance imaging: This test can provide greater detail about soft tissue and nerves than a CT scan, X-ray or MRI.
- Electrodiagnostic studies: These tests use special electrodes to send electrical signals to various neck or shoulder areas. To determine if one is affected, they can test nerve function.
Tests such as these can help identify pinched nerves or other conditions that can cause shoulder pain. Other conditions include:
- Tendon tears
- Arthritis or inflammation of the joints
- Bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid-filled pockets that cushion the joints, is called bursitis.
- Shoulder fracture
A pinched nerve in the shoulder is usually harmless and will resolve over time.
A doctor will take into consideration:
- What is causing the pinched nerve?
- How severe is the pain?
- How the pinched nerve affects everyday activities
A doctor will often recommend non-surgical treatments first. The doctor might recommend surgery if the pain persists or becomes worse.
There are several non-surgical options for a pinched nervous system:
- You can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen or ibuprofen.
- To relieve inflammation, you can take oral corticosteroids.
- They are injecting corticosteroids to reduce swelling.
- Wearing a cervical collar that is soft to prevent neck movement to allow nerves to heal
- Some of the options are exercises and physical therapy to reduce stiffness, improve range of motion, and increase range of motion.
- To reduce shoulder pain, you can temporarily take pain-relieving medication.
Sometimes, pain from a pinched nerve in the shoulder can go away. If a person is suffering from degenerative changes, the pain could worsen over time.
A doctor might recommend surgery if the above remedies do not relieve your pain. There are many types of surgery available.
- Anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion involve a surgeon reaching the neck bones starting at the front. The surgeon will first remove any disc or bone causing pain, then fuse the affected areas to reduce the pain.
- Artificial disc replacement involves replacing a damaged or diseased disk with an artificial one made out of metal, plastic or a combination. A surgeon will access the spine column from the neck, just like with an ACDF.
- Posterior cervical Laminoforaminotomy: This involves cutting a 1-to 2-inch section of the back of your neck to remove any spine material that might be pressing on nerves.
- The surgeon attempts to decompress the suprascapular nervous. The purpose of this is to release the nerves from the scapular notch.
The best surgical approach depends on the individual’s symptoms, the location of the spine and the tissue pressing on the nerves.
How to manage a pinched nerve in your shoulder
A pinched nerve in the shoulder can cause pain that is temporary. If a person experiences intense symptoms, they might want to try these:
- For up to 48 hours, apply cloth-covered icepacks to the neck and shoulder area. They can then use warm, moist heat for pain relief.
- A pillow that supports the neck is a good choice for sleeping. These pillows can be purchased online.
- Use pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory medications.
To help prevent future episodes of pain, a person may try the following:
- It is essential to be comfortable when sleeping or sitting at a computer. To avoid straining or moving the neck repeatedly, people can use devices such as a hands-free telephone. You can reduce back strain by adjusting the height of the keyboard and chair.
- Regular exercise can reduce stiffness and maintain healthy body weight.
- Massages can help increase circulation and reduce inflammation, which can lead to healing. It is possible to relieve muscle tension with massages.
An occupational or physical therapist can help you with exercises and advice about improving your posture at work and home.
The bottom line
Pinched nerves in the shoulder can cause pain and weakness.
Medications that are available over-the-counter can often be used to relieve symptoms. These methods may not be effective. If they do, there are surgical options.
You should see a doctor if you experience shoulder pain that persists for more than a few days.