Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root coming off the spinal cord becomes compressed. The compression can occur for various reasons. When it happens in younger people, it may occur when a cervical disc herniates due to trauma. While in older individuals, it commonly occurs spontaneously as a result of arthritis or decreased disc height in the neck region. When the spinal nerves are impinged, they cannot properly send messages to the muscles from the brain, nor receive proper sensation from the specific arm location the nerve travels. Unfortunately, everywhere the spinal nerve travels will be affected which results in pain, weakness, and radiating loss of sensation in the arm.
Most pinched nerves or entrapment problems can be managed conservatively with physical therapy and patients will return to normal function. Numerous modalities can be utilized to help manage the symptoms associated with cervical radiculopathy.
Physical Therapy Modalities Used to Treat Cervical Radiculopathy
- Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT): Low Level Laser Therapy is a cutting-edge treatment option. Laser Light therapy uses very short wavelengths of light (600-1000 nm) to penetrate human tissue in order to facilitate healing of tissue, reduction in pain and swelling. Particles called photons assemble in waveforms to make light. The light transmits through the skin’s layers at all wavelengths in the visible range. LLLT it can be used to help reduce patient’s pain.
- Traction: Spinal traction is a form of decompression therapy that relieves pressure on the spine. It can be performed manually or mechanically on a traction table. Spinal traction is used to treat herniated discs, sciatica, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, and many other back conditions. Spinal traction stretches the spine to take pressure off compressed discs.
- Ultrasound Therapy: Ultrasound therapy has been shown to decrease pain, increase function and enhance cartilage repair. The sound waves of ultrasound are converted into heat within the deep tissues, which opens the blood vessels and allows oxygen to be delivered to the injured area.
- Electrical Stimulation: A study in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that electrical stimulation reduced pain in patients with cervical radiculopathy by 40%. Electrical treatments can provide pain relief by helping to relax muscles that are tight or in spasm. This can be an excellent option for patients who want to stay away from medications. The treatment works in two main ways; first, it can provide a stimulation that the body interprets differently than pain and second, it can artificially make the muscle contract breaking up the spasm cycle.
- Therapeutic Exercise: Using cervical mobility exercises will help relieve symptoms and increase a patient’s range of movement. Neck stretches are particularly helpful if a patient sits for extended periods of time and will help to relieve pressure on the neck.
Neck pain is the number three cause of chronic pain; with more than a quarter of Americans reporting the neck as being the location of their pain. Unfortunately, many Americans have resigned themselves to pain because they simply feel it’s a normal condition. According to a recent survey by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), close to one in two Americans say pain is part of life, while another 41% believe pain is a standard part of the aging process. It’s important to educate patients of their treatment options in order to empower them to seek treatment. Patients don’t need to suffer from cervical radiculopathy, particularly since physical therapy can not only relieve symptoms but eradicate the problem altogether.
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