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What is Arm Pain of Spinal Origin?

Arm pain of spinal origin can be described as discomfort or pain felt anywhere in the arm including the wrist, elbow, or shoulder as a result of a pinched nerve (nerve compression) or irritated nerve in the spinal cord. The pain can occur as a dull constant pain or a sudden sharp pain that can develop suddenly or over time. The pain may be confined to one area of the arm or may radiate to other areas of the arm such as the hand, wrist, elbow, or shoulder.

What are the Causes of Arm Pain of Spinal Origin?

Most often arm pain from spinal nerve compression occurs due to degenerative changes of the spine from aging or an injury that causes a bulging or herniated disc.

Degenerative Changes: As spinal vertebral discs age, they become stiffer, dry out, lose water content, lose height, and ultimately bulge out. This causes a collapse of the disc space and loss of disc space height. The body reacts to the collapsed disc by forming more bone called bone spurs around the disc to strengthen it. These bone spurs lead to stiffening of the spine as well as narrowing of the foramen (small openings on each side of the spinal column where the nerve roots exit) leading to compressed or pinched nerves.

Herniated disc: A herniated disc most often occurs with sudden trauma felt with bending, twisting, pulling, or lifting movements. A disc herniates when the nucleus (jelly-like centre) pushes against its annulus (outer ring). When the herniated disc bulges out toward the spinal canal, it exerts pressure on the sensitive nerve root, causing pain and weakness in the area the nerve supplies.

In general, men are affected slightly more than women by this condition. Risk factors include:

  • Neck trauma
  • Spinal nerve injury
  • Heavy manual labour
  • Operating vibrating equipment
  • Driving
  • Smoking

What are the Symptoms of Arm Pain of Spinal Origin?

The pain in most cases originates from a compressed nerve in the neck and travels down the arm area. The pain can be described as sharp or burning in nature. Neck movements such as straining or extending the neck or turning the head may result in pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weakness in the muscles of the neck, shoulder, arm or hand
  • A sensation of “pins and needles” or tingling in the hand or fingers
  • Loss of sensation

Treatment of Arm Pain of Spinal Origin

Treatment for arm pain of spinal origin depends on the severity and cause of the nerve compression. Non-surgical options are usually the first line of treatment and include medications such as NSAIDs and oral corticosteroids, physiotherapy, steroid injections, and narcotics in the case of severe pain.

Chiropractors focus on realigning the bones in the spine and other joints in order to take pressure off of nerves and improve function. Other treatments such as heat or cold therapy, ultrasound, electrical stimulations, and massage may also be employed. Chiropractors can also offer guidance on exercise and stretching routines to help to strengthen the muscles and support the joints.