Nerve pain is one of the worst kinds of pain. People with a pinched nerve (sometimes called a "stinger") may experience sharp, burning pain for anywhere from a few seconds to a few days or longer. The pain usually comes on suddenly and may disappear just as fast-only to return. There also might be temporary numbness or slight weakness.

A nerve gets "pinched" when surrounding tissue presses against it and causes inflammation of the nerve. Causes include repetitive motions, traumatic injuries and joint diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. The most common pinched nerves occur in the wrist, elbow, shoulder and foot. Nerve roots in the spinal canal also are vulnerable.

Red flag: Nerve pain that is accompanied by significant weakness or that doesn't improve within a few days needs to be checked by a physician. Excessive pressure on-or inflammation of a nerve can result in loss of function and permanent damage.


To reduce the pain…

  • Stop repetitive movements. A pinched nerve that's caused by performing the same movements over and over again usually will improve once the offending activity-leaning with your elbows on a counter, typing, working a cash register, etc.-is stopped for a few days. Avoiding these activities is also the best way to prevent a pinched nerve.

However, patients with job-related pain can't always afford to take time off. In that case, they should attempt to change their body position when doing the activity.

Example: Raising the back of a computer keyboard (most are adjustable) will enlarge the carpal tunnel in the wrist and reduce pressure on the nerve.

  • Ice the area. Applying cold in the first 24 to 48 hours after nerve pain starts can reduce tissue swelling and nerve pressure. Use a cold pack or ice cubes wrapped in a towel. Hold cold against the affected area for about 15 minutes. Repeat every hour or two for a day or two.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory. Over-the-counter analgesics that have anti-inflammatory properties, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, reduce the body's production of chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling. Don't use acetaminophen. It will reduce pain but has little effect on inflammation.
  • Wear looser clothes. It's fairly common for women to experience a pinched nerve in the outer thigh (meralgia paresthetica) from too-tight jeans or skirts...or foot pain (tarsal tunnel syndrome) from tight shoes.

Medical Care

Nerve pain that's severe or keeps coming back —or that's accompanied by other symptoms, such as a loss of bowel or bladder control requires immediate medical care. Customized splints or braces can be used to minimize pressure on a nerve from repetitive movements. Also helpful…

  • An injection of a corticosteroid into the painful area-or a short course of oral steroid therapy. These drugs reduce inflammation very quickly and provide short-term relief. The pain may disappear after a single treatment, but most patients need repeated courses. Sometimes, if pain is not relieved, acupuncture may be used in addition to medication and physical therapy.
  • Surgery is recommended when the pain is severe or keeps coming back. The procedures vary depending on the part of the body affected.

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