In this article, we provide all the information you need to know about a trapped nerve in the shoulder and how best to treat the condition.
A “trapped nerve” is a condition in which there is too much pressure on your nerve or its surroundings. The spine protects your central nervous system, ensuring the body’s overall stability. The trapped nerve in the shoulder or neck is nerve damage, caused by the surrounding bones, ligaments, or muscles. A pinched nerve in the shoulder originating from the neck is termed cervical radiculopathy.
Nerves are the sensors of your body to detect any sensations. Stiffness or inflammation of the tissue surrounding a nerve can result in various painful feelings. Trapped nerve pain ranges from localized muscle pain and stiffness to more widespread, long-term discomfort. Tendinitis, torn cartilage, joint problems, and other medical conditions can trap your nerves and cause shoulder pain. The trapped upper-spine nerve can cause shoulder pain as well as lower back pain.
If you develop bone spurs around your spinal discs, they can trap your nerve between your cervical vertebrae. The discs are located between the vertebrae and act as shock absorbers. Bone spurs result when the discs in the spine begin to degenerate with age.
In this article, you will get information on what a trapped nerve in the shoulder feels like and what you can do if you are suffering from this condition.
Signs and symptoms of a trapped nerve in the shoulder
A trapped nerve in the shoulder generally causes pain, discomfort, or insensitivity in the shoulder region. Osteoarthritis, frozen shoulder caused by rotator cuff injury and some other medical conditions can also lead to shoulder pain.
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the shoulder include:
- Changes in sensations on the same side where the nerve is trapped.
- Decreased muscle strength in the shoulder or arm.
- Side-to-side head movements are restricted due to neck pain.
- Hand or finger numbness and irritation.
Causes of a trapped nerve
Trapped nerve in the shoulder results when any bony outgrowth or swelling of the surrounding tissue compresses the nerve roots that supply your shoulder region. Nerves in the cervical area of the spinal cord are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a pinched nerve. Cervical spinal nerves are the main route by which your brain communicates with other body parts.
Some common causes of a trapped nerve in the shoulder include:
- Disk degeneration: Gel-like disks between your vertebrae usually weaken with age. Consequently, the bones may come close, posing a rubbing hazard to the nerves. In addition, bone spurs are bony outgrowths on the vertebral column that can occur in some people. These also put pressure on the nerves that run along the shoulders. Loss of nerve supply to the muscles can further lead to muscle weakness.
- Herniated disk: When a disc herniates from the spinal cord, it exerts pressure on the nerves that exit the spinal column. Your pain will exaggerate when you try to twist or bend your body(1).
- Acute injury: If you get an acute injury in a car accident or while playing sports, it can lead to a herniated disc or inflammation that can cause nerve compression.
- Poor posture: Sitting down in one posture for long periods can compress your nerves, ultimately irritating them. This is especially true if you have a poor sleeping posture. You need to change your sitting or sleeping position if poor posture is the cause of your nerve compression.
- Bone spurs This can be a potent cause if you have any underlying bone disease. Bony outgrowths on the spinal column can grow to a point where they can obstruct nerve roots that travel to the shoulders.
How to get Diagnosed
Doctors will start the diagnosis of your shoulder pain by history taking and doing a physical exam. First, they’ll ask you about the symptoms you are experiencing and what causes them to worsen or improve. Then, to see if there are any apparent issues, your doctor will also examine your neck, shoulder, and surrounding areas.
An orthopedic doctor may recommend additional tests to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. Examples of these tests include:
- X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan: These tests identify the changes in the spine’s bones that could be pressing on the nerves (2) .
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This technique gives detailed information about soft tissue and tells about the exact location of the trapped nerve (3).
- Ultrasound scan.
- Electrodiagnostic studies: These examinations use specialized needles that transmit electrical signals to various parts of your shoulder and neck. They can test the body’s nerve functions to determine if any are impeded.
These tests enable your doctor to diagnose a trapped nerve in the shoulder or another condition that is causing shoulder pain.
Care and treatment
The most common treatment for trapped nerve pain will focus on alleviating the stiffness caused by trapped nerves in the shoulders. The goal of treatment is to loosen the affected area to relieve any pressure, tension, and inflammation contributing to your nerve irritation. You can also apply ice packs to relieve the pain of pinched nerves in the area of the shoulder blade and neck.
In addition, you can alleviate a pinched nerve using these treatment options.
- Postural changes: Poor posture is one of the most prevalent causes of trapped nerves in the shoulder. If you stand or sit in the wrong position, you are exerting extra stress on your body, which can damage your muscles and spine. Cushions, neck rests, and chairs with adjustable heights are some solutions to this problem(4).
- Comfortable sitting: You also need to make a few adjustments at your workplace that can result in significant improvements. Adjust your computer monitors to a level that is comfortable for your eyes. Use such gadgets and equipment that are comfortable for your body. Working at a standing desk can be beneficial to reduce stress and keep your spine mobile.
- Painkillers: In less severe cases of trapped nerves, pain relievers like ibuprofen, which is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), can reduce swelling. This also relieves the discomfort caused by the trapped nerves. You can also use naproxen in the treatment of pinched nerves. Before beginning any pain relief treatment for a trapped nerve, you should consult a medical professional about the appropriate dosage(4).
- Stretching and yoga: Yoga and gentle stretches are always helpful to alleviate stress and stiffness throughout your body. However, sometimes, the extension can exacerbate some symptoms.
- Hot and cold heat: Apply heat and cold packs alternatively as this can considerably reduce your inflammation and swelling. This also improves the blood supply to the affected area which can be an effective pain treatment method.
- Exercise: Strengthening exercises that keep your body energized and flexible are excellent choices for reducing the symptoms of a trapped nerve in the shoulder. However, keep in mind that you do not exercise vigorously as this can aggravate your symptoms instead of relieving them.
- Physical therapy: This is a deep-tissue massage that targets multiple layers of soft tissue to reduce muscle stress. Because massage relaxes your muscles, it is typically a quick and effective way to alleviate pain. In addition, getting a massage from a physical therapist is beneficial since it lowers your cortisol levels, allowing the muscles to relax and mend more quickly.
- Prolotherapy: Structures in the shoulder have a poor blood supply, which is why they can struggle to heal and untrap the nerves in the shoulder. It is the oxygen and nutrients in our blood supply that help to heal these structures. Prolotherapy involves the injection of a regenerative solution into these structures to provide a direct supply of what is needed to heal them, untrap the nerves and provide pain relief. As the treatment is helping to treat the root cause of the problem, it is deemed to be a permanent fix.
Surgical treatment of a trapped nerve in the shoulder
A doctor may propose surgery if the above treatments fail to manage your condition. You may undergo one of the following surgical treatments for the trapped nerve.
- Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF): Surgeons use this technique to gain access to the neck bones. This involves making an incision in the front of the neck. Before fusing the spine, the disc or bone is removed which gives rise to the pain(5).
- Artificial disk replacement: Implantation of an artificial disc consisting of metal, plastic, or a combination of these, is used to replace a diseased or damaged disc. Surgeons approach the spinal cord from the front of the neck.
- Suprascapular nerve decompression: In this procedure, the surgeon releases the nerve if it is obstructed in the area of the scapular notch.
These safety measures can minimize the risk of the trapped nerve:
- Maintain a good posture and healthy weight.
- Perform regular exercises and stretching to enhance the strength and flexibility of your muscles.
- Avoid sitting or lying in one posture for a long time, and avoid crossing your legs for an extended period. This may cause the nerve in your leg to become trapped and cause pain(6).
- Make an effort to cut back on your use of repetitive motions and take frequent rests (such as while typing). For example, when working with a keyboard, use wrist rests.
A trapped nerve in your shoulder can severely reduce the range of motion at your shoulder joint. Damage from a trapped nerve can range from mild to severe. Either a long-term or a short-term issue exists. Getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment for a trapped nerve as soon as possible helps alleviate your symptoms. You can alleviate your symptoms by taking over-the-counter medications. Surgical treatments are available if these methods fail to relieve your pain. However, you should report to your doctor if your shoulder pain lasts more than a few days.
- Kamogawa, J., Kato, O., Morizane, T., & Hato, T. (2015). Virtual pathology of cervical radiculopathy based on 3D MR/CT fusion images: impingement, flattening or twisted condition of the compressed nerve root in three cases. SpringerPlus, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40064-015-0898-6
- Abu-Naser, S. S., & Almurshidi, S. H. (2016). A Knowledge-Based System for Neck Pain Diagnosis. Dstore.alazhar.edu.ps. http://dstore.alazhar.edu.ps/xmlui/handle/123456789/384
- Middleton, W. D., Payne, W. T., Teefey, S. A., Hildebolt, C. F., Rubin, D. A., & Yamaguchi, K. (2004). Sonography and MRI of the Shoulder: Comparison of Patient Satisfaction. American Journal of Roentgenology, 183(5), 1449–1452. https://doi.org/10.2214/ajr.183.5.1831449
- Steinmann, S. P., & Moran, E. A. (2001). Axillary Nerve Injury: Diagnosis and Treatment. JAAOS – Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 9(5), 328–335. https://journals.lww.com/jaaos/Abstract/2001/09000/Axillary_Nerve_Injury__Diagnosis_and_Treatment.6.aspx
- Epstein, N. E. (2019). A Review of Complication Rates for Anterior Cervical Diskectomy and Fusion (ACDF). Surgical Neurology International, 10, 100. https://doi.org/10.25259/sni-191-2019
- Bahr, R., & Engebretsen, L. (Eds.). (2009). Sports Injury Prevention. Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444303612