Radiculopathy is a compression of one or more spinal nerve roots as it exits the spine. The compression causes dysfunction of the nerve and leads to tightness, pain, numbness or tingling sensations and/or weakness in the limbs. The injury occurs where the nerve exits the spine, but the symptoms commonly appear in the limbs, in the specific area that is supplied by the affected nerve root.
This injury most commonly occurs in the neck (cervical) and low back (lumbar) regions. A cervical radiculopathy will cause symptoms in the shoulders, arms or hands while a lumbar radiculopathy will cause symptoms in the buttocks, legs and feet. The symptoms can appear on one side or both sides of the body.
What Causes Radiculopathy?
There are many things that can cause compression of the nerve roots, including:
- Disc herniation
- Osteophyte formation (bone growth)
- Osteoarthritis of the joints
- Spondylosis (degeneration)
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the nerve pathway)
- Joint dysfunction (acute injury or stiffness)
How can Physiotherapy, Chiropractic or Massage Therapy Help with Radiculopathy?
Conservative treatment such as physiotherapy and chiropractic are considered the first line of action to help treat radiculopathy. Your therapist can help diagnose this issue involved and identify the root cause of the radiculopathy to create an effective treatment plan with you. Initially, treatment may be focused on symptom relief and prescription of safe exercises to help decompress the tissue and manage your daily activities. Your therapist will use manual techniques to help reduce the compression on the nerve and restore its function, exercise to help strengthen the muscles that support your spine to help prevent recurrence of the injury, and may choose to use other modalities such as acupuncture or dry needling.
What Should be Avoided with Radiculopathy?
If you are able to identify postures or movements that reproduce your symptoms, you should try to avoid being in those positions for extended periods of time or reduce the frequency of the repetitive movement as able. Try to change your position or get up and move around more often throughout your day.
It is also important to consider your sleeping position if you have this injury, as certain positions such as sleeping on your stomach or sleeping with unsupportive pillows may cause increased compression on your nerve. Try to ensure your pillow keeps your neck in a neutral position, use pillows to support your arms/legs if you sleep on your side, and use a pillow under your knees as needed if you sleep on your back.
How Long Does it Take to Recover from Radiculopathy?
Recovery times can vary depending on each case and what is causing the compression of the nerve root. If you are able to receive treatment, follow your home exercise program and modify your activities the prognosis can be very good. It can take about 6-8 weeks to recover from the condition. If your radiculopathy is caused by degenerative changes it is important to continue to make exercise and lifestyle changes to ensure the radiculopathy is managed. You may need to be seen every few weeks by a physiotherapist or chiropractor to keep you accountable for this lifestyle change and prevent a re-occurrence.
What are Safe Home Exercises for Radiculopathy?
Given that this condition can be caused by many different variables, it is best that you come in for an assessment to determine the most appropriate exercises for you. Your physiotherapist may teach you stabilization exercises, self-mobilizations of joints or nerve flossing depending on the severity of your symptoms and its root cause. Nerves are the most sensitive structures in the body so it is important to be educated on what is best for you and not push through pain with your exercises unless instructed to by your health care professional.