Symptoms of pinched nerve in the spine

Updated July 19, 2017

A pinched nerve affects the lower back or neck, along the spinal cord. Although there are a wide variety of names for this condition, the ailment is generally characterised by muscle fatigue, shoulder or lower back pain and concentrated immobility. Luckily, with proper diagnosis and treatment, a patient can recover from a pinched nerve in just a few days.


A pinched nerve occurs along the spinal cord, the long bone that extends from the base of the brain to the lower part of the thoracic spine, just above the lower back. When the spinal cord ends, the nerve roots extend from the spine and exit just above the buttocks. Pinched nerves generally occur at this lower portion and commonly affect the L5 (lumbar 5 nerve) or the S1 (sacral 1 nerve), though other nerves may also be affected (Spine-Health).

Most Common Symptoms

When a patient suffers from a pinched nerve, the pain is generally caused by the spinal disc pinching a nerve in the spine. This condition often produces a pain called "radicular pain," or nerve root pain, which may feel sharp or dull, depending on the severity on the condition. The two nerves most commonly affected by a pinched nerve are in the lower back, at L5 and S1. A pinched nerve at L5 generally causes numbness and muscle weakness. This is because the L5 nerve is responsible for muscle movement that raises the foot and big toe. Consequently, when the L5 is pinched, the patient may also experience pain the radiates along the top of the foot. A pinched S1 nerve can also cause muscle weakness and numbness in the back of the calf. This is because the S1 nerve is responsible for moving the back calf. The S1 nerve is also responsible for jerking the ankle downwards, so a pinched nerve in this location may also result in pain along the exterior of the foot (Spine-Health).

Additional Symptoms

While not as common, nerves can become "pinched" in the neck as well and may affect nerves C5, C6, C7 and C8. A pinched nerve at C5 can result in shoulder pain, numbness in the shoulder and muscle weakness. A patient suffering from a pinched C5 nerve may not be able to control the biceps muscles in the arm. A pinched nerve at C6 may result in weakness of the wrist extensors and biceps and pain and numbness that extends down the arm and into the thumb. The patient may also experience an inability to control the mid-forearm. A pinched nerve at C7 may result in pain and numbness from the arm to the middle finger, and the patient may not be able to control the triceps. Finally, a pinched nerve at C8 may result in hand dysfunction and immobility, as well as pain and numbness that affect the outside of the little finger.


To determine the cause of pain in the patient, a physician will generally review the patient's detailed medical history and will often order a physical exam and diagnostic tests. The physician will generally ask what the pain feels like in the lower back, what other symptoms may accompany the pain and what positions or treatments decrease or dull the pain. In addition, the physician will conduct a series of physical exams, meant to identify the cause and location of the pain. The physician may also test nerve function, muscle strength in the legs and arms and flexibility of the spine. Finally, a physician may also prescribe a diagnostic test, including a CT scan or an MRI scan, to confirm the cause of pain. These tests reveal essential information, such as the location of the pinched nerve and the nerve roots.


Because the precise definition and symptoms of a pinched nerve are debated by health care professionals, there is no consensus on what the condition is actually called. Many physicians refer to the condition as a pinched nerve; however, the condition may also be referred to as a "herniated disc," "bulging disc," "ruptured disc," "torn disc," "disc tear," "slipped disc," "collapsed disc," "disc protrusion," "disc disease" and "black disc." This disagreement on the condition's official name may cause confusion or frustration for the patient; however, these conditions are identical and should not be a cause of additional worry.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Baker holds a Masters of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing and has been working with Demand Media Studios since 2002, specializing in health, education, food and travel topics.