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Physical Therapy for Radiculopathy – Information, Exercises, and More

If you’ve ever experienced a pinched nerve, you know the symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable.

The shooting pain and discomfort caused by a pinched nerve (or radiculopathy) in any portion of your spinal cord can be a major distraction.  

Being diagnosed with radiculopathy can feel overwhelming, especially when trying to cope with the symptoms. 

Thankfully, there are many ways to deal with radiculopathy and alleviate the symptoms. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss what causes radiculopathy, the symptoms, treatments, and how physical therapy can help. 

What is Radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy is the term used to describe irritation or compression of the nerve roots in your spinal cord. 

There are three different types of radiculopathy: 

  • Cervical radiculopathy — usually affects the neck, shoulders, and upper back
  • Thoracic radiculopathy — occurs in the upper and middle back
  • Lumbar radiculopathy — affects the lower back

What Causes Radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy is caused by changes in the tissue that surrounds the nerve roots in your spinal cord. 

Radiculopathy can be a result of compression, inflammation, or injury to a spinal nerve root. 

Radiculopathy can occur for several reasons, including:

Radiculopathy is most common in your neck or lower back

Radiculopathy Symptoms

To diagnose radiculopathy your doctor will likely begin with general physical This will typically be followed by an X-ray to view your bone alignment or an MRI to scan different areas of your back. 

Radiculopathy symptoms vary based on the type of radiculopathy you have. Symptoms can affect any area of your:

  • Neck
  • Back
  • Arms; or
  • Shoulders

Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy typically start in the neck and travel down the arm, depending on the nerve that has been damaged. 

Many patients describe the symptoms as:

  • Sharp or burning pain that spread through the neck, arm, chest, and upper back 
  • Numbness or loss of sensation in hands and fingers
  • Pain that increases when straining or extending the neck 

Thoracic Radiculopathy Symptoms

Thoracic radiculopathy occurs in the upper/mid-back. It is the least common form of radiculopathy and is very rare. 

Symptoms of thoracic radiculopathy include:

  • Burning or shooting pains in your ribs,abdomen and middle back
  • “Band-like” chest pain
  • Pain or tingling that radiates from the middle back to the chest
  • Muscle weakness  or stiffness in legs

Lumbar Radiculopathy Symptoms

Symptoms of lumbar radiculopathy are typically present in the leg and foot. 

These symptoms may present as:

  • Sharp pain starting in the back and shooting down to the foot
  • Pain while sitting or coughing
  • Numbness or tingling — a pins and needles sensation —  in the back and legs
  • Weakness in the buttocks or legs
  • In extreme cases, lumbar radiculopathy can cause poor coordination, trouble walking, and paralysis. 

Sciatica is another term used to refer to lumbar radiculopathy. Physical therapy is known to help the pain that radiates down the sciatic nerve.

Radiculopathy Treatment

Dealing with the symptoms of radiculopathy can be difficult. The pain and weakness can complicate everyday life. 

Luckily, there are a number of treatments available for radiculopathy — both non-surgical and surgical. 

Common Non-Surgical Treatments

Guidelines state that non-surgical treatments for radiculopathy, like patient education, exercise, and manual therapy may be the best treatments. 

Non-surgical treatments for radiculopathy include:

  • Weightloss
  • Injections — epidural steroid injections, for example, may help patients who otherwise would need surgery. Patients may need multiple shots within a three-month period to feel positive results. 
  • Exercise and physical therapy 
  • Medications
  • Rest and immobilization of the affected area 
  • Ultrasound and infrared treatment

Surgical Treatments

Sometimes, non-surgical treatments are not enough. Surgery may be deemed necessary to relieve the pain/discomfort of radiculopathy.

Common surgeries to treat radiculopathy are: 

  • Spinal decompression surgery — opens the boney canals where the spinal cord and nerves pass through
  • Spinal fusion — permanently connecting two or more vertebrae in your spine so that there is no movement between them 
  • Foraminotomy — surgery to enlarge the passageway where spinal nerve roots exit the spinal canal
  • Disc replacement surgery — a device gets implanted into the spinal  to replace and function as a normal disc.

Radiculopathy Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Radiculopathy physical therapy involves strengthening yours core and back muscles to better support your spine.

It is a great option for patients looking for relief from radiculopathy symptoms who do not want to resort to surgery unless necessary. 

In most cases, patients who choose radiculopathy physical therapy find that their symptoms are completely alleviated without surgery and little to no medication.

Best Radiculopathy Exercises

One study found that patients who practiced neck and chest exercises at least twice a week saw increased muscle strength, reduced pain, and prevented recurring injuries. 

Some of these exercises include: 

  1. Trap Stretches — This stretch loosens the trapezius muscles in the back of the neck. If these muscles are too tight, they can compress your spine and nerves. By stretching the trapezius muscle, you can loosen the muscles and release any trapped nerves.
  2. Levator Stretch— By keeping the levator scapulae muscle relaxed and loose, levator stretches help reduce and eliminate pain caused by cervical radiculopathy.
  3. Thoracic Spine Thrusts have some short-term and long-term effects to help relieve pain and are one of the most common cervical radiculopathy physical therapy exercises. 

Talk with your doctor about exercises that may help your radiculopathy. They may recommend and refer you to a physical therapist, like In Motion O.C. to ensure you are not making your symptoms worse. 

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Radiculopathy

As the number one rated physical therapist on Google and Yelp in the United States, our team at Motion O.C. understands that dealing with radiculopathy is never easy. 

We’ve helped hundreds of people manage their symptoms by working through their diagnosis and exploring exercises that work for their unique situation. 

We want to help you relieve your symptoms and focus on the things that really matter in life, not the constant pain caused by your radiculopathy.  

*This information about physical therapy for Radiculopathy was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.