Cervical Radiculopathy Explained (radiating neck pain)

 In Back and Neck Pain

Radiating Neck Pain

Severe pain can be one of the most distressing feelings in the world, and one of the most uncomfortable pains to have can be nerve pain. I want to document and explain the typical journey of a person with neck related nerve pain and explain why even though it feels terrible at the time, it will all be ok in the end.

A Cervical (fancy word for the top 7 vertebra of the spine which make up your neck) related radiculopathy (fancy word for pain, tingling, pins and needles or numbness) is a common diagnosis that is often quite painful.

Presentation: This condition most commonly affects people aged 30-60 and can start from either an incident such as a violent head movement, a change in routine such as a long period of sustained extreme neck positions (falling asleep on the couch) or can come about completely out of the blue. The person will often report intense shoulder, arm and hand pain and neurological symptoms such as numbness and pins and needles in the same areas.

Symptoms are most often aggravated by all movements but especially tilting your head down or up as far as you can, or looking over one shoulder as far as you can.

A common mistake by practitioners is to misdiagnose a cervical radiculopathy as shoulder bursitis due to the often-intense pain around the upper arm. This can often be a large setback as people with shoulder bursitis are often (wrongly or righty) given corticosteroid injections, which will have no positive effect on radiating neck pain.

A skilled health professional should be able to diagnose your problem quickly, however, if you are after quick test at home, if your pain is brought on from neck or body movements (shoulder being still) then it is likely you have radiating neck pain, however, if your pain is brought on by shoulder movements (where your body and neck is not moving) then it is likely you have pain originating from the shoulder.

The other helpful tool in diagnosing radiating neck pain is imaging. Your health practitioner, if he or she finds it to be necessary, can use MRI or CT imaging to assess the 3D structure of the neck. Most often this neural irritation will be caused by a cervical disc issue such as protrusion or bulge. It is important to note that disc issues will almost always be present in individuals with no pain at all so any imaging findings should always be carefully matched up to the area of pain to determine if the information is relevant or not.

The most important thing to know about the intense pain that can arise from a cervical radiculopathy is that it will most likely go away! If you do the right things (spend plenty of time in comfortable positions such as laying flat with a towel around the neck) then it will most likely go back to normal inside of six weeks.

I hope this article can assist you in making wise and informed decisions about your neck or shoulder pain that will help you to recover and get back to the things you love doing as quickly as possible.


Michael Harders
Master Physiotherapist

Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog


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  • Allen Cuttler

    Great article, thank you!

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