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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 are the symptoms of a trapped nerve?

Very often the problem they have may start with lower back pain, but eventually starts to affect down the back of either leg, as far down as the calf or the feet. This isn’t caused by a problem in the legs, but rather the nerve that runs down the back of the leg becoming compressed at its root in the spine. Traditionally nerves don’t get trapped anywhere other than the spine, apart from in very extreme and very unlikely circumstances. Where nerves become trapped in the neck, this can cause pain in the neck as well as into the arms, hands and fingers. It’s also worth noting that pain is not the only sensation you may experience if you have a trapped nerve. Other common symptoms that people do experience are weakness, numbness, burning or pins and needles sensations.

How do you get a trapped nerve?

If you’re someone that has a desk job, you may have a tendency to slouch at your desk. You’ll know if that’s you if you tend to lean forwards quite a lot at your desk, perhaps your round your back and shoulders, or maybe you lean back in your chair excessively. Having poor posture at your desk can also include the positioning of your computer, are you looking down or up constantly at your screen? You should be sitting with your back straight, with your shoulders back and head neutral – neither looking up nor down – at your screen. You should also be sitting with your hips square and feet firmly on the floor. Correcting your posture to this can at first be uncomfortable, and in some cases achey and painful, as when your muscles are not used frequently they do lose strength. Perseverance with consistently checking back in with your posture will eventually mean your muscles become stronger and you will experience less pain.

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.

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Heat vs. Ice Therapy

Another helpful tip is to use ice over an area that is irritated, rather than heat therapy. Use an ice pack (or bag of frozen peas) wrapped in a towel, for about 3-5 minutes a few times a day. Delving into research on the efficacy of ice can be confusing as there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, but in our experience using it for a short period of time, a few times a day can be tremendously helpful in reducing the amount of inflammation. It does take time to accumulate an effect with icing an injury, and initially you may seem more stiff but it will help in the long term. While heat may feel soothing, it can increase the amount of inflammation and may not be helpful long-term.

It’s important to remember that most back pain can be resolved and even avoided if it’s dealt with soon or quickly with the right advice. If you’re struggling with back pain, call our expert team today to see how we can help. Call us on 0203 947 3222 or email us at info@themayfairclinic.com to talk to a member of the team and arrange your first appointment today.