Just like how sciatica/ leg pain is usually caused by a bulging disc in the lower back or by a muscle pinching the nerve, arm pain and/or numbness & tingling is usually caused by a bulging disc in the neck or by a muscle pinching a cervical (neck) nerve root or plexus.
The nerve roots that come out from between your cervical vertebrae converge to form three main nerves that service the arm: the ulnar, median and radial nerves. If any of these nerve roots are pressed by a bulging disc, a bone spur or thickened ligament, it usually causes radiating (traveling) pain from the neck down the arm; usually all the way down to the fingertips.
The specific area of pain/tingling depends on which nerve root is being pinched. In fact, that is how doctors diagnose the precise problem area. For example, numbness down the medial (inner) side of the forearm down to the pinkie and ring finger can be produced by compression of the C8 & T1 nerve roots. Numbness in the outer forearm, thumb and first two fingers is associated with the C6 & C7 nerve roots.
Radiating arm pain can also be caused by thoracic outlet syndrome, where muscles near the neck and upper shoulder pinch the nerve plexus (where the roots converge). This will be next week’s topic.
Self Treatment for Radiating Arm Pain
If you have significant neck pain accompanying your arm symptoms, then it is likely you have a bulging disc in your neck. It feels like a focused, sharp pain deep inside the neck on one side. Massage does not help this kind of pain.
Most mild to moderate cases of cervical disc bulges resolve with exercises and manual therapy. The severe cases usually require surgery to remove the disc portion that is pressing against the nerve. If you have a severe case, get a consultation from a spinal surgeon and a second opinion. If done in time, surgery can resolve the arm pain, but if the entire disc is removed the surgeon will fuse the vertebrae above and below the disc which will reduce your neck range of motion somewhat.
If the disc bulge or offending structure is allowed to compress the nerve root for an extended period it may result in permanent injury to the nerve. This means after surgically removing the bulge, you still may have numbness down the arm. This is why, for nerve compression conditions, time is of the essence.
Non-surgical candidates can do exercises to reduce the bulge size. For typical posterior bulges (bulges that protrude towards the back and one side of the vertebral body) try this: while standing, use your posterior neck muscles to pull your neck straight back, as far as you can; hold for 3 seconds. It may feel uncomfortable if your disc bulge is acute. Keep your chin tucked in so that the top of your head is level. Do eight times, twice a day for a couple of weeks; note changes in your neck pain and arm pain. Discontinue if it aggravates your condition. This movement gently presses the backs of the vertebral bodies together, which pumps the disc bulge back to center.
If the exercises help but you hit a plateau, try side bending your neck towards the side of the pain, very slowly; repeat six times. Again, note changes; discontinue if it aggravates the pain.
Recommended Lifestyle Changes
Forward bending of the neck and anterior weight bearing of the head (forward head posture) tends to make the cervical discs more vulnerable to bulging because in this position the vertebrae press the front part of the discs, pushing the jelly center (nucleus) towards the back.
Axial forces (straight down through the spine) to the neck can also make disc bulges worse. Any activity that involves jumping creates axial forces — running, basketball, gymnastics, mountain bike riding, sky diving, etc. It’s not a concern unless you do it frequently.
If you have a bulging disc in your neck with arm pain, here are some suggested lifestyle changes:
- Use a contoured neck pillow and sleep on your back.
- Work on improving your posture: eliminate forward head posture.
- Get a standing desk if your job requires a lot of sitting– it’s better for your back and neck.
- Use the Cervical PosturePump device to hydrate your cervical discs
- Strengthen your neck muscles so they offer more support to your neck.
- Avoid excessive jumping. If you like running, consider getting Z-coil or Gravity Defyer shoes (see below).
Treatment Accessories to Reduce Arm Pain from Disc Bulge
This device uses specially designed air bladders, inflated by a hand pump to spread apart and extend neck vertebrae. This expands the discs, drawing in fluids and nutrients and also stretches the neck into its normal, ideal curvature.
These specially designed shoes have powerful springs in the heel that significantly dampen the forces generated from running. Less shock to your feet, ankles, knees, hips, low back and neck.
Place this lightweight desk on your traditional sit-down desk and switch its height between standing and sitting in less than five seconds. Choose to stand for as long as you like, then switch back– great for easing into standing while working, if you’ve been a desk sitter for many years.