Nerve root disorders usually result from a herniated disk or osteoarthritis in the spine.
These disorders can cause pain, abnormal sensations, and/or muscle weakness in the area of the body they supply.
Doctors diagnose nerve root disorders based on results of imaging tests, electrodiagnostic testing, and tests to identify the cause.
Doctors treat the cause if possible and give drugs to relieve the pain, including over-the-counter pain relievers (such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or acetaminophen) and corticosteroids.
(See also Overview of Peripheral Nervous System Disorders.)
Nerve roots are the short branches of a spinal nerve. Spinal nerves exit the spinal cord along the length of the spine. Each spinal nerve contains two nerve roots: one motor and one sensory. (Motor nerve roots contain nerve fibers that carry commands from the brain and spinal cord to muscles. Sensory nerve roots contains nerve fibers that carry sensory information about such things as touch, position, pain, and temperature from the body to the spinal cord.) After exiting the spinal cord, the two nerve roots join to form a single spinal nerve. Each spinal nerve then goes between two back bones (vertebrae) in the spine to connect to a specific area of the body. The surface of the skin is divided based on these specific areas, which are called dermatomes. A dermatome is an area of skin whose sensory nerves all come from a single spinal nerve root.
The most common cause of nerve root disorders is
A herniated disk can cause a nerve root disorder by putting pressure on the nerve root next to it.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or osteoarthritis can cause changes in the spine that put pressure on (compress) nerve roots, especially in the neck and lower back. In osteoarthritis, bone in the spine can overgrow and narrow the opening between the vertebrae that the nerve root goes through.
Less commonly, a tumor or other mass (such as an abscess) puts pressure on a nerve root.
Diabetes can cause a nerve root disorder by damaging blood vessels that provide blood to the nerve root.
Symptoms of nerve root disorders depend on which nerve root is affected. Pain, abnormal sensations, and/or muscle weakness occur in the area of the body supplied by the nerve root. The pain may feel like an electric shock that radiates through the affected area. Muscles may waste away and/or twitch. People may be paralyzed.
Pain may be worsened by movement, including moving the back, coughing, and sneezing.
If the lowest roots of the spinal cord (the cauda equina) are affected, people may have weakness in the legs, urinary problems (such as incontinence or retention of urine), lose control of their bowels, and lose sensation in the buttocks, genital area, bladder, and rectum. Men may have trouble having an erection. This disorder, called cauda equina syndrome, is a medical emergency. The problem—such as a herniated disk, an abscess, a tumor, or a blood clot—that is putting pressure on the cauda equina must be corrected to prevent permanent nerve damage.
Doctors ask about symptoms and do a physical examination. The findings provide clues to the diagnosis and help doctors determine where the problem is.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) is done to confirm the diagnosis. MRI shows the spinal cord, as well as abnormalities in the soft tissues around the cord, such as abscesses, hematomas (collections of blood), tumors, and ruptured disks, and in bone, such as tumors, fractures, and cervical spondylosis.
If MRI cannot be done and if results of CT are unclear, myelography is done. For myelography, a radiopaque contrast agent (which can be seen on x-rays) is injected into the space around the spinal cord, and x-rays are taken. CT myelography may also be done. CT myelography can provide detailed images of the spinal cord and surrounding bone.
Electrodiagnostic tests (electromyography and nerve conduction studies) are done to confirm that symptoms are caused by compression of the spinal nerve rather than by problems in the spinal cord or in a nerve plexus (a network of nerve fibers, where fibers from different spinal nerves are sorted and recombined to serve a particular area of the body). However, these tests cannot always identify the cause.
If imaging tests do not identify a cause, a spinal tap is done, and doctors analyze the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid) to check for infections. Doctors also measure the blood glucose level after people have fasted to check for diabetes.
Causes of nerve root disorders are treated when possible.
For sudden, immediate pain, pain relievers (analgesics), such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are used. If symptoms are not relieved, corticosteroids may be given by mouth or by injection into the space between the spine and the outer layer of tissue covering the spinal cord (called an epidural injection). However, with corticosteroids, pain relief tends to be modest and temporary.
For long-lasting (chronic) pain, treatment can be difficult. Acetaminophen and NSAIDs are often only partly effective, and taking NSAIDs for a long time has substantial risks. Opioid pain relievers have a high risk of addiction. Some antidepressants and antiseizure drugs, which are usually not considered pain relievers, can lessen pain due to nerve damage. Physical therapy may also help relieve pain. If all of these treatments are ineffective, some people may wish to try alternative medicine (such as transdermal electrical nerve stimulation, chiropractic, acupuncture, or medicinal herbs).
If the pain is unrelenting or if pressure on spinal nerves is causing muscle weakness or loss of sensation, surgery to relieve the pressure may be necessary. If compression of the cauda equina or the spinal cord causes urinary or fecal incontinence, surgery is usually necessary to prevent permanent damage.