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Radiculopathy

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Radiculopathy is a painful condition that results when a nerve becomes "pinched" (most commonly in the cervical or lumbar spine).

Radiculopathy is a condition involving pinched nerves in the spine that can cause pain, numbness, weakness or tingling. Radiculopathy can occur in all areas of the spine (the cervical/upper spine, the thoracic/middle spine, or the lumbar/lower spine), however the cervical and lumbar areas are most frequently affected. Most people suffering from radiculopathy are between the ages of 30 and 50 years old. The condition can occur spontaneously or as the result of a trauma.

What Causes Radiculopathy?
Radiculopathy occurs as a result of the compression of a nerve root.

Some of the most common causes of radiculopathy are:

  • Herniated disc. A herniated disc is the most common cause of radiculopathy. A disc herniation occurs when the tough outer covering of a disc breaks down, and the soft substance inside the disc ruptures outward and causes compression of the adjacent nerve root. This pressure on the nerve can cause extreme pain, numbness tingling and weakness. That said, degeneration of the disc is a common finding and not all herniated discs cause these symptoms, in fact most do not result in any symptoms.
  • Cauda Equina Syndrome A rare but serious condition in which many or all of the nerve roots in the lumbar spine are severely compressed and compromise the function of the pelvis and lower extremities. The condition is almost always a result of a severe herniated disc but can also be caused by spine fractures, tumors and other less common findings.
  • Osteoarthritis The spine is susceptible to the effects of aging just like any other joint in the body. As arthritis of the joints in the spine develops however, the bony portions of the spinal column become overgrown and can pinch off the nerve roots causing radiculopathy
  • Scoliosis An abnormal curvature of the spine that can be present at birth or develop over the course of a lifetime. The angle and severity of the curve varies but even mild cases can cause radiculopathy and/or back pain.
  • Diabetes A less common cause of the condition, patients with diabetes can develop radiculitis, which occurs when blood flow to the nerves is inadequate.

 

Because radiculopathy is a complicated condition with various causes, it is important to be treated by specialists such as the spine team at the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center — so that a proper diagnosis can be made and the most effective course of treatment may be prescribed. (See Symptoms of Radiculopathy.)

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Reviewed by Dr. Roger Härtl
Last reviewed/last updated: December 2020
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI