A very common enquiry we have here at The Mayfair Clinic is regarding trapped nerves: what are they and why do you get them? Very commonly we have patients say they’re experiencing a trapped nerve in the neck or shoulders, so we thought we’d take the time to explain the ins and outs of them. It’s very common to think that any pain that extends along the side of your neck towards the shoulder, is because of a trapped nerve. That is very much a myth and we’ll explain why!
The pain of a trapped nerve is often described a sharp pain, a pinpoint pain within the muscle. But where is it coming from and what exactly is it? Invariably, it’s actually coming from the neck rather than the muscle in the shoulder, even if that’s where you’re experiencing the pain. Especially with neck and back dysfunctions, it’s quite common for you to experience pain in a different area to the part that is injured. This is simply down to the amount of nerves that are running through the spine. The most common example of this happening is with the sciatic nerve.
What is causing the sharp pain in the shoulder?
If you are someone who currently slouches at your desk, you may be rubbing the joints on a regular basis. We hear quite a lot the scenario where a patient has suddenly turned their head and ‘trapped a nerve’, but this can actually be caused by the joints constantly rubbing and it’s just nicked the delicate membrane around the facet joint. The pain from this type of injury can be really quite significant, causing a very sharp pain whenever you move which can lead you to believe it’s nerve pain. In reality, it’s not a trapped nerve, you’ve really just strained a joint in the neck. The centre of the membrane of that facet joint can become nicked, and these are very pain sensitive structures. This is a very different kind of pain to discogenic pain (caused by an issue with a disc in your spine). If you’ve slipped a disc, or got a bulging disc, the pain can be much more general, widespread and quite non-specific. One of the most important things to remember, is that stretching or flexing your neck further forwards, a common activity used to try and stretch the muscles, is not generally as helpful as you would think it would be.
How do you treat it?
An exercise that works well that we recommend to our patients, is using a small rolled up towel to help open up the disc space and support the natural lordosis. It helps to take pressure off the joints, and can be relaxing as it will decrease the amount of compression through the neck. In order to do this, roll up a towel to about the thickness of a water bottle, and lie on the floor with it under your neck. Lie somewhere quiet for 3-4 minutes at a time and just relax there. When you get off, it’s important to hold your neck steady and roll off to the side, don’t twist your neck, this will give you a little support in order to take the pressure off the irritated joint.