Your spine is made of many bones called vertebrae, and your spinal cord runs through a canal in the center of these bones. Nerve roots split from the spinal cord and travel between the vertebrae into various areas of your body. When these nerve roots become pinched or damaged, the resulting symptoms are called radiculopathy.
Types of Radiculopathy
Radiculopathy can have different symptoms and different names depending on where in the spine these symptoms originate.
When radiculopathy occurs in the lower back, it is known as lumbar radiculopathy. This type of radiculopathy is also referred to as sciatica because nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve are often involved. The most common cause of sciatica is a bulging or ruptured disc (herniated disc) in the spine pressing against the nerve roots that lead to the sciatic nerve.
Cervical radiculopathy refers to pinching or inflammation of a cervical nerve from its exit point in the cervical spine, called the neural foramen. The symptoms of cervical radiculopathy may include pain, numbness, or weakness in different arm or hand areas.
Thoracic radiculopathy refers to a compressed nerve root in the spine’s thoracic area, which is your upper back. This type is the least common location for radiculopathy. The symptoms can cause pain and numbness that wraps around to the front of your body.
When a nerve root is compressed, it becomes inflamed. This results in symptoms that may include:
- Sharp pain in the back, arms, legs, or shoulders that may worsen with certain activities, even something as simple as coughing or sneezing
- Weakness or loss of reflexes in the arms or legs
- Numbness of the skin, “pins and needles,” or other abnormal sensations in the arms or legs
Your specific symptoms will depend on where in the spine nerve root is pinched. However, it’s also possible that you won’t experience any symptoms, or you will go through periodic flare-ups of symptoms.
Radiculopathy versus Myelopathy versus Spinal Stenosis
Radiculopathy and myelopathy are often confused with each other since they both exhibit similar symptoms. However, there is a clear distinction between the two.
Radiculopathy occurs when a nerve or nerves along the spine become pinched. In radiculopathy, the source of the pain is at the root of the nerve where it connects to the spine. The pain however often spreads as the nerves send pain signals to other parts of the body. If you have a pinched nerve in your neck, you may also feel pain in your shoulders and down through your arms.
Myelopathy is the result of spinal cord compression. The difference is that it affects the entire spinal cord, compared to compression on the individual nerve root, which leads to radiculopathy.
As you age, the spine changes, and conditions like arthritis and bone spurs can narrow the spinal canal. When the spinal canal narrows, it is known as spinal stenosis, which can pressure the spinal cord and nerve roots.