Explaining exactly what a pinched nerve feels like is not a simple task. There are many nerves within the human body, all working to send messages to and from the brain, performing our motor functions and sending sensory information for processing. We have nerves in our hands, feet, neck, back, elbows and almost everywhere else, so depending on what nerve gets trapped, the symptoms will differ.
A trapped nerve usually happens when an injury occurs or there is a major change in the body, such as the one experienced during pregnancy. Swelling around a nerve can cause it to become compressed, as can collapsed muscles from long term damage (as seen with carpal tunnel syndrome). When a nerve becomes compressed, or pinched, it can no longer send messages to and from the brain and body as efficiently as it could, causing a range of possible side effects.
The main symptom that people complain of when they have a pinched nerve is pain. Our nerves are very sensitive and one becoming pinched sends messages to our brain that essentially say ‘ouch’. The pain doesn’t necessarily manifest itself at the immediate sight of compression, however. If you have a pinched nerve in your elbow, for instance, then you may not feel pain until right at the end of your nerve which is in the tip of your fingers. This is one reason why it’s important to visit your doctor when you think you have a pinched nerve. You may need to wear a sling or cast to stop further compression of certain nerves that you didn’t think were involved.
Another common symptom experienced with pinched nerves is numbness. This can be worrying, but it’s just a result of the nerve being temporarily unable to send messages of sensation to your brain. Once the nerve becomes free you will regain feeling again. Numbness typically occurs in the tips of the fingers when a nerve in the arm is affected, or in the lower back when one is trapped within the spine. If you feel tingling then this is a sign that the message of sensation is getting through to the brain, but not altogether effectively. If you previously were numb in one area but slowly start to feel tingling then this could be a sign that the pinched nerve is recovering.
As well as tingling, numbness and pain, you may feel like the part of the body affected is stiff. This is due to the brain’s message of ‘move’ not getting through to the muscles properly. If you have a pinched nerve in your neck, for instance, then you may have difficulty looking in certain directions.
Pinched nerves are often painful and restricting, but the only person who can tell you whether you definitely have one or not is your doctor. They will begin by asking you about your job or daily activities, the symptoms you’re experiencing and may give you a short physical exam. If they are still unsure then you may be sent for an x ray to check for spinal damage or arthritis, or a test using tiny electrical pulses to see if the nerve is damaged or not.