Trapped Nerve in Neck: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Trapped Nerve in Neck

A Real Pain in the Neck

Recently in the clinic I seem to have had many patients coming in complaining of having a trapped nerve in neck pain. The first thing everyone says is: “I think I have a pinched nerve”. They say this whilst trying to look at me with their head slightly bent to one side and their neck looking like a Frankenstein stuck in a bolt and nut through it so stiff.

This is a classic story many chiropractors will tell you that they have seen before. Many patients come through their doors having woken-up with a stiff neck which progressively got a lot worse through the day. The inside of the right or left shoulder-blade, shoulder or arm might be killing them as well. So I thought I would tell you what I have seen as the two most common causessymptoms of a pinched nerve, and 12 tips for what you can do yourself to get some pain relief today.

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Symptoms of a Trapped Nerve in the Neck

You think you have a nerve that is being trapped which is causing all that pain into your neck maybe referring into a shoulder or arm.

By definition a symptom is usually what you can feel or see. A symptom is usually how you would explain what your feeling to your chiropractor or doctor.

What are some symptoms of a nerve being compressed in your neck?

Remember those patients with the neck ache I mentioned earlier, the ones who would come into a Chiropractic clinic with their neck in a torticollis position? These are some of the common answers I would hear from them as they try to describe their symptoms:

  1. I woke up and getting out of bed, or in the shower, I then felt my neck twinge and within a few hours my neck was really sore and now my neck is stuck.
  2. The pain is mainly in my shoulder, on top of my shoulder, down the inside of my shoulder-blade and the back of my arm with pins and needles down in my finger tips.
  3. My arm pain feels worse than my neck.
  4. If I raise my arm above my head it relieves the shoulder pain.
  5. Painkillers and anti-inflammatories are not helping at all to relieve my neck or arm pain.
  6. The pain is a deep, throbbing, ache in my arm.
  7. I have never had a problem like this before with a neck pain.
  8. The pain is worst in the early morning hours and wakes me up from sleep.
  9. I cannot find a comfortable position to get neck pain relief.
  10. Trying to drive the car was really sore and made the pain worse.

Sound familiar? These are just some of the ways patients might explain the symptoms of a nerve entrapment.

Want to know “what does nerve pain actually feel like?” it is best described as a deep, throbbing, pain in the bone, worst pain you have ever felt pain.

This is because with a true nerve irritation you will be experiencing what is medically termed, neurogenic pain.

Neurogenic pain is DIFFERENT from inflammatory pain.

Inflammatory pain is like when you have a back pain from pulled a muscle.

Causes of a Pinched Nerve in the Neck

I did promise I would tell you what are the two most common causes for why I see people wake-up in the morning with a wry neck or trap a nerve in the back of their neck or shoulder blade.

Before I tell you I would like you to first have the knowledge of the anatomy of a normal neck. I thought the following video shows quite nicely the basic human biology of the cervical spine. After watching the video you should be able to visualise key concepts like: what is a cervical disc, what is a cervical spinal nerve root and the what are the cervical facet joints.

Cause #1: A Problem with a Cervical Disc

A disc in your cervical spine could be a problem if you develop a prolapsed or herniated disc. Only an already degenerating unhealthy disc will cause a sudden, non-traumatic neck pain. Why this is so important to know because if you end up going for an MRI scan of your neck then it is common radiological finding to report a bulging, degenerating, dehydrated disc. Even healthy, pain-free people can have poor looking discs on a MRI scan.

What can happen to a cervical disc is micro-trauma tears to the outside of area of the disc, called the annulus fibrosis. These tears, delamination, could have occurred for no apparent reason over several months or years until one day you finally end up with a painful pinched nerve in your neck. The middle of the disc, called the nucleus pulposus, can then bulge the disc outwards or cause a herniation of its material even into the spinal cord space.

Signs of degeneration of the spinal joints (facet, uncinate) are another common finding. Degenerative changes in the joints of the neck are usually called spondylosis (a.k.a osteoarthritis) on a neck x-ray report. Where the disc is degenerating the joints are degenerating and visa versa. See how disc degeneration progresses occurs below.

Cause #2 can be a synovial meniscoid entrapment

Your probably asking “what the hell is a synovial meniscoid?” A synovial meniscoid is a normal structure found in all of the spinal joints of your neck. It is thought a synovial meniscoid can get trapped between the two surfaces of the joints of the neck. In the literature it is not common, but I definitely think it can happen.

In this case a person may present with a more local base of neck pain without major signs of a spinal nerve root compression coming from a disc injury. A pinched synovial meniscoid pain is typically one-sided and over the cervico-thoracic (CT) junction area of the spine. This is where your neck meets your upper back and is where the big bone (vertebrae prominens) at the back of your neck is found.

12 Self-Treatment Tips for a Trapped Nerve in Neck

If after an examination your chiropractor or doctor confirms that you do have what I call a true trapped nerve in your neck or shoulder then they will advise you further what they could do professionally to help you get some relief from the pain.

I believe many people may think they have this type of genuine nerve pain. However, what I mean by a true trapped nerve is a situation where the spinal nerve root coming of your spinal cord is either being irritated by a cervical disc lesion (like a herniation) or overstretched like in a stinger injury. This can occur with or without pain going down the inside of the shoulder blade or outer arm and forearm, and especially at the elbow. Medically this could be termed a cervical radiculopathy.

Here is a list of 12 more treatment tips:

  1. Don’t Avoid Seeing a Chiropractor/Doctor
    This is rule number one because even though you can try do some home treatment now, if you do have a more serious cause of nerve entrapment in your neck that this can cause you to lose function in that nerve. This is not to be alarmist, but pain is just a warning sign. There are worse things that can happen from having a trapped nerve. You may not realise linked problems like loss of muscle strength, bowel bladder changes from a severe disc herniation. There are other serious causes like an infection or tumors. Using a healthcare professional first to give you a diagnosis of your neck pain helps you then decide what to do next.
  2. Try the Bakody Sign Position
    The bakody sign is used to both diagnose and treat. To get pain relief from the pressure of a trapped nerve you would raise the affected arm, palm side down on top or behind your head. See the bakody’s sign position.
  3. Avoid Prolonged Sitting
    Sitting for too long will cause your head to slowly shift forward on your neck bone. This bad posture will place more stress on the spinal joints and discs in your neck. Not good when they might be inflamed or the nerve irritated. This also leads to a condtion called anterior head carriage, forward drawn posture or upper crossed syndrome.
  4. Use a Cervical Pillow
    I believe good pillow support will lower the stress placed on your neck and upper back. Supporting the joints of your neck will help lower the risk of further nerve irritation. I am a fan of the memory foam pillows. Memory foam pillows come in many shapes and sizes. There are lots of different brands out there for example like Tempur pedic. However, at the end of the day, any good pillow support from any type of pillow is definitely another important treatment exercise to help you control the neck pain levels.
  5. Move Your Neck In Pain Free Directions
    Immobilizing the neck completely with a neck collar can cause more neck ache and pains. Moving your neck gently in pain-free directions will then allow the other normal joints and discs in your neck to stay healthy. It is a fine balance between the amount of rest and movement.
  6. Neck Exercises
    The movement relationship from your jaw joint, neck, upper back, shoulder blade and all the way down the arm play an important part in fixing the problem. Have a look at the beginners neck pain exercises using two simple neck dynamic neuromuscular stabilization moves, these neck isometrics or look at releasing your trapezius muscle.
  7. Neurogenic Pain Medication vs Inflammatory Pain Medication
    At the end of the day the neck or shoulder and arm pain is what you are most concerned about. So how can you control the pain levels with medication? Chronic pain can occur from a severe acute pain episode therefore using appropriate trapped nerve medication can lower your risk of developing chronic neck pain. There are many different kinds of pain medication for trapped nerves, muscle spasms & inflamed joints. So speak to your doctor if your current pain medication is not helping. Neurogenic pain is specific to nerves vs inflammatory pain which is general.
  8. Using Cervical Traction Home Kits
    Caution must be advised if you are seeking to perform cervical traction at home on your neck. Traction is thought to be best if cervical traction is intermittent. Large amounts of force are not needed with traction of the neck. Your local chiropractor or orthopaedic/neurosurgeon could advise you on their personal feelings about using home cervical traction devices. Sometimes it is best left to your healthcare provider to perform the cervical traction for the pain in the neck.
  9. Keep Hydrated
    Being in constant pain can make you forget to drink water. If you are taking lots of trapped nerve pain killers and not eating or sleeping properly then hydration levels can become an issue. Excessive pain medication can stress your liver and kidneys. That is why hospitals are likely to put new admission patients on an intravenous (IV) saline drip. Remember to try drink some glasses of water during the day to help create a better natural healing environment in your body.
  10. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
    Inflammation to some degree will be affecting the nerve entrapment pain in the neck. Deciding prescribing what you eat can have an effect on your pain levels and how fast your body can heal itself. Eating anti-inflammatory foods like the ones recommended in the Deflame Diet can be such a simple way to enhance your recovery.
  11. Hot Wraps and Cold Packs
    The general rule is heat is a natural muscle relaxant, cold is a natural anti-inflammatory and pain-killer. Microwaveable wheat bags, warm moist towels and hot water bottles are easy sources of heat therapy. The blue gel, moldable freezer ice packs are my favourite source of cold therapy. For ice keep it wrapped up in a dish cloth so you don’t freezer burn yourself and leave on the neck for 10-20 minutes with 1-2 hour breaks in between. For a disc pain try ice and for a meniscoid entrapment try heat.
  12. Try Magnesium Supplements
    [NEW] Read more about how low levels or magnesium deficiency is linked to a depressed nervous system and inflammation. After my own self-experiment and seeing what happens in patients with neck pain this is such a simple treatment tool not to be missed. Read more about magnesium supplements for pain.

More good news is there are some neck exercises you can try perform by yourself whilst getting your appropriate professional treatment. These exercises can be found in a self-help book by Robin McKenzie called “Treat Your Own Neck”. In the book, which is available to buy through Amazon, Robin goes through his regular rehabilitation exercise movements to help treat excess pressure on a disc in your neck.

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The Bottom Line

This self-help list for a pinched nerve is not everything, but only a guide. The above list of do it yourself treatments hopefully, should give you some good ideas as to what you can do to help trapped nerve in the neck episode. I hope you get better soon.

  • Emma Louise Chamberlain

    Change your dr I did and I’ve never looked back xx

  • Gary Chiro

    Hay Alex, for a nerve to heal quickly it’s best to get the pressure of the nerve ASAP. That is probably why the physio sent you for traction so quickly. Other tests that should have been done on you so far would have been testing your muscle reflexes like your tricep and bicep, grading the motor strength and mapping the sensation in your arm. This helps to guage the extent of the pressure on the nerve and level involved. More advanced testing like nerve conduction studies and MRI scans may be warranted if the signs are the pressure is increasing. I’m glad to hear you are on some specific nerve pain medication like gabapentin. The neck exercises are they the McKenzie ones where you bend your neck backwards? People do get better from these types of events. As long as your doctor/physio is tracking and monitoring the situation all should be fine. I know it is not a nice thing to hear and can make you feel very apprehensive. Please discuss your concerns with whoever is monitoring you. The need to put your mind at ease.Hope that helps.

  • Alex.s.b

    I’m a climber and doing training so massive part of my life , including other excersizes I do ie yoga etc and also I play guitar , I thought 5 weeks ago that I’d pulled a muscle in shoulder then 2 weeks ago I woke up with tremendous pain and in my triceps and forearm My partner made me go to Dr who said to do 2 exercises with my arm and gave me 10 days painkillers. My pain got worse and I got loss of sensation in my thumb and the 2 fingers next to it . Went back saw a different Dr , he thought I had a trapped nerve in my neck referred me to physio and had some tests , saw physio today she said she referring me as an urgent case for traction as I have a root nerve trapped between C5 and C6 , I’m taking gabbapentin and codeine and 4 basic neck excersizes . I’m worried sick , I can’t climb I can’t play guitar and can’t do much at all with my arm with such limited movement ,pain and no feeling in thumb and 2 fingers . Why is it urgent I have traction , any one help ?

  • Gary Chiro

    Hay Steven what did you end up doing in the end?

  • Gary Chiro

    Mary one possible answer might be a cervical spondylotic myelopathy. Hope you got to the bottom of it.

  • Gary Chiro

    Hi Cheryl, when it comes to cervical spine arthritis you don’t need to be in this kind of pain forever. It is possible that some extra piece of bone is irritating the nerve or the discs between the vertebrae have degenerated a little bit more recently causing a drop in height between the bones or bulging a bit more out. Saying that, there are many people with neck arthritis who aren’t suffering a pinched nerve down their arm. So what I’m trying to say is it doesn’t have to be a long-term thing now. From a damage perspective it depends on the kind of pressure on the nerve involved. The greater the pressure then finally the nerve can stop supplying the muscle it innervates leaving the muscle weak when tested. I have seen people with tricep muscle wasting from a neck pinched nerve and a few months later regain the muscle bulk and strength back nearly the same as the other arm without surgery. If it is in your thumb maybe the C6 nerve root is being irritated between your C5-C6 vertebrae. Your symptoms of feeling sick on the amitriptyline is not the first time I have heard that. When it comes to medication for pain we are all just individual chemistry experiments. Each person might need either different kinds of drugs or different dosages. A non-drug option I would suggest you consider are the McKenzie exercises for your neck. These are to see if you can take the pain out the arm. These neck exercise are in the book that I have linked to at the bottom of the post on Amazon UK or US. If you try the McKenzie exercises please let me know the results for you. I’m going to aim to write a post showing video of the exercises. I’ll drop you a reply to let you know when it goes live.

  • Cheryl

    Hi Gary, I’ve had neck pain running into shoulder and down arm, then constant pins and needles running into thumb, I had x rays and was diagnosed with cervical arthritis. I was given amytrip but stopped taking after 2 days as it made me feel so sick, ibuprofen were sufficient. The thing that worries me is it’s been 8 weeks now and my arm keeps going into constant spasm, very tight and uncomfortable, I can rest my hand on the top of my head to alleviate but its pointless as the moment I put it down it comes straight back. Is this a long term thing now? Will these spasms cause any long term damage?
    Thanks, Cheryl

  • Gary Chiro

    The leg numbness is not normally associated with a trapped nerve in your neck. One case that could explain the neck, shoulder, leg and dizziness is a condition called cervical spondylotic myelopathy. The dizziness might be classed as cervicogenic dizziness here is a youtube video explaining it

  • mary

    can a trapped nerve in the neck or shoulder area cause numbness in the back of my head and my arm and leg.and i get dizzy

  • mukka

    Hi ive

  • mukka

    Hi i have the shoulder and neck pain but i also have lymphadema. My vains are starting to surface and cause me alot of pain. I havnt had a mri scan yet. Do u think my neck and shoulder pain is related to my lymphadema? P.s im 37

  • Tanya Farnaby

    I’m not sure if I have a trapped nerve but I’ll describe my situation! Dr’s are no help so maybe you could all help!
    For 4 years I have suffered from severe headaches usually steaming from neck pain. The worse they have been is 10 days in a row! I have been to my Dr whilst having an episode and been in tears but still no help. I have had herniated discs in the pass that they operated on 15 years ago. I managed to get to a back specialist that MRI scanned me and my disc’s are slightly herniated but not enough to operate on!
    I have ended up having to manage my neck and headaches as nobody will help. I have discovered that sitting for a long period can trigger my neck into stiffnes and knots in it, so now I lay down to watch tv etc in the evening. Both my shoulder joints ache, especially when I lay on my side in bed. It’s really getting me down as GP’s are no help. Trying to look after A 5 and 7 year old with this pain sometimes is hell, I can’t even pick them up without triggering my neck. Even silly things like putting a handbag over my shoulder can start the pain. Any advice would be great please.

  • cally

    hi,i fell asleep on the couch and then went to bed,i never felt anything before i went to bed but when i woke up and tried to get out my bed thats when i felt the pain, i dont have any pains in my shoulder blades or arm its shooting pains that are going from my shoulder to the top of my neck. i can only move my head back and fore on the left hand side . when i try to do it on the other side thats when i get these very sore shooting pains

  • Gary Chiro

    Maybe something else to consider is “upper crossed syndrome” as coined by Prof Janda. Basically certain muscles become to strong/tight others become weak/tight. This is a postural syndrome that after what you have said about the years at the computer is related. Nutritionally maybe have a look at something called Acetyl-L-Carnitine which has been shown to help with nerve degeneration. I’m thinking of your long term trapped ulna nerve in your elbow. Here is a link to some on Amazon UK –

  • GiGi

    Hi,I have been diagnosed with repetitive motion disorder …I worked sitting at a computer for the last 20 years. They denied me workers comp and now trying to treat myself. I have had x-rays, injections, dry needling, deep tissue, art, acupuncture … Still having pain between shoulder blades, i have big lumps around my scapula , under my arms, pain across my pecs, numbness in last 2 fingers, ulnar nerve is trapped.. Last person said I have nerve entrapment. I am in constant pain.. Any

  • Gary Chiro

    Fantastic news there Jim, did you find anything in particular the physio did the most helpful?

  • jimbo

    Had a trapped nerve in my neck last year, Had pains across my chest and thought it was a heart attack, My left arm was numb and I got pins and needles in my fingers. I have no feeling in my pinkie,ring finger and middle finger now. The pains lasted for seven months and I was prescribed pain killers,anti inflamatory tablets, valium,and cream,none of them made the slightest difference,The only cure for me was physio and the pain was away in about 2 days.

  • jimbo


  • Gary Chiro

    Laura unfortunately waking up with a crick in the neck happens and can be very sore. Hope you get better soon.

  • Gary Chiro

    Hay Fernando what did Eric find causing your pain? Did it take long to feel a positive difference?

  • Fernando

    After 2 neurologist, 2 orthopedics, 1 neurosurgeon, 1 primary, 1 chiropractor , 3 MRI, 1 bonescan, x rays, and several injections and being high in pain medicine (tramadol, lirica, etc etc), $6000.00 dollars later and a bunch of clueless doctors I have one name for all of you, Dr Eric Douglas in Bonita Springs, FL. 239-947-4184 .
    This is the guy who will take care of your nerve, back, muscle pain.

  • Laura

    I’m 14 and I have got a trapped nerve from the way I was sleeping the night before. About 2 hours after I woke up I found out I had this pain in my neck and it gradually got worse. Sometimes with quick movement it would trapped nervend I started crying so I went to see the doctor and she said it was a trapped nerve. This is my second day of having the pain and it’s still really sore and I’m worried about it.

  • supersam

    Hi Bagpuss, i hope Physio is working for you. I have had the same problem for 5 months now. My GP is useless and is refusing a scan and physio was very unhelpful and also refused me a scan. I ended up paying privately for a chiropractor who seems to be getting some where with it but progress is slow. I would recommend seeing a chiropractor if physio doesnt work for you and if you can afford it.

  • Gary Chiro

    Hi Jan gentle massage of the shoulders and back of neck could give you some relief.The osteoarthritis could be causing the trapped nervee-lower-back-pain-relief/'> -->trapped nerve.These trapped nerve pains can release on their own depending what the exact cause is.Hope you get some good tips from the comments on this page.Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Jan

    Hi, reading all these comments is a bit of comfort – its not just me in pain.
    I’ve had this trapped nerve for about 5 weeks now, its unbearable as I also have osteo arthritis and chronic lymph oedema for the last 10 years. this is the first time pain has stopped me doing anything, I have always found a way to carry on. My doc has prescribed Amytriptoline on top of my morphine, not working yet as I have to build up the strength over several weeks.

    Does it release its self? Does massage help?

  • bagpuss

    Hi I have just been diagnosed with a trapped nerve in my neck, I am coming up to week 3 now and all my symptoms are the same as yours. I find moving around does help, but night time is the worst in bed, I cannot get comfy and have only had about 8 hours sleep in the last 5 days, at times I find the pain unbearable in my arm and it does not matter how many pain killers I take it does not go away. I am waiting to see my N.H.S physio and have got everything crossed that they will be able to make this pain go away.

  • kezagal

    totally agree with Mandx and Ink72, the fact that you are saying something like this on a website thats helping others cope with this really debilitating condition and you find it amusing to say something like that? I would never wish this on my worst enemies!!

    The “everyone needs to be mentally stronger” part really got to me as I have a full time job, i’m working towards a personal trainer qualification, I’ve got a house to run, physio, and I have to keep myself fit and healthy and then the day to say stresses of life in general to add to the mix, and I do “get on with it” but the stress that this condition puts people under does affect your mental state, I for one have been put off sick from work with mild depression but I am not wired that way and so finding it difficult to rest when I have lots on my plate as you don’t seem to have.

    Keep your cr***y comments to yourself!!!

    Sorry to the others but I needed to rant (I had left a comment when I first saw this but something went wrong!)

  • mandx

    why are you even on this link then? obviously to find out about the pain and suffering it causes. so that you can obviously sit and feel sorry for yourself. because no body else cares ………

  • Ink72

    You have been lucky and only mildly trapped the nerve, wait until it really gets trapped, then it becomes very difficult to get on with anything even with the aid of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. People like you should keep their comments to themselves on medical matters as nerve impairment can often be a sign of something much worse than a trapped nerve.

  • Nige Schofield

    Hi Steve, let me know by posting a message if you read this then i will tell you my story regarding my trapped nerve which i first experienced back in 2007 and am still in agony with..Regards,