Nerve Root Disorders


ByMichael Rubin, MDCM, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell Medical Center
Reviewed/Revised Mar 2024
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Nerve root disorders result in segmental radicular deficits (eg, pain or paresthesias in a dermatomal distribution, weakness of muscles innervated by the root). Diagnosis may require neuroimaging, electrodiagnostic testing, and systemic testing for underlying disorders. Treatment depends on the cause but may include symptomatic relief with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, other analgesics, and corticosteroids.

(See also Overview of Peripheral Nervous System Disorders.)

Nerve root disorders (radiculopathies) are precipitated by acute or chronic pressure on a nerve root in adjacent to the spinal column (see figure Spinal Nerve Roots).

Spinal Nerve Roots

Etiology of Nerve Root Disorders

The most common cause of radiculopathies is

Bone changes due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or osteoarthritis, especially in the cervical and lumbar areas, may also compress isolated nerve roots.

Less commonly, carcinomatous meningitis causes patchy multiple root dysfunction. Rarely, spinal mass lesions (eg, epidural abscesses and tumors, spinal meningiomas, neurofibromas) may manifest with radicular symptoms instead of the usual symptoms of spinal cord dysfunction.

Diabetes can cause a painful thoracic or extremity radiculopathy by causing ischemia of the nerve root.

Infectious disorders, such as those due to mycobacteria (eg, tuberculosis [TB]), fungi (eg, histoplasmosis), or spirochetes (eg, Lyme disease, syphilis), sometimes affect nerve roots. Herpes zoster infection usually causes a painful radiculopathy with dermatomal sensory loss and characteristic rash, but it may cause a motor radiculopathy with segmental weakness and reflex loss. Cytomegalovirus-induced polyradiculitis is a complication of AIDS.

Symptoms and Signs of Nerve Root Disorders

Radiculopathies tend to cause characteristic radicular syndromes of pain and segmental neurologic deficits based on the cord level of the affected root (see table Symptoms of Common Radiculopathies by Cord Level). Muscles innervated by the affected motor root become weak and atrophy; they also may be flaccid with fasciculations. Sensory root involvement causes sensory impairment in a dermatomal distribution. Corresponding segmental deep tendon reflexes may be diminished or absent. Electric shock–like pains may radiate along the affected nerve root’s distribution.


Pain may be exacerbated by movements that transmit pressure to the nerve root through the subarachnoid space (eg, moving the spine, coughing, sneezing, doing the Valsalva maneuver).

Lesions of the cauda equina, which affect multiple lumbar and sacral roots (cauda equina syndrome), cause radicular symptoms in both legs and may impair sphincter and sexual function.

Findings indicating spinal cord compression include the following:

  • A sensory level (an abrupt change in sensation below a horizontal line across the spine)

  • Flaccid paraparesis or quadriparesis

  • Reflex abnormalities below the site of compression

  • Early-onset hyporeflexia followed later by hyperreflexia

  • Sphincter dysfunction

Diagnosis of Nerve Root Disorders

  • Neuroimaging

  • Sometimes electrodiagnostic tests

Radicular symptoms require MRI or CT of the affected area. Myelography is needed only if MRI is contraindicated (eg, because of an implanted pacemaker or presence of other metal) and CT is inconclusive. The area imaged depends on symptoms and signs; if the level is unclear, electrodiagnostic tests should be done to localize the affected root, but they cannot identify the cause.

If imaging does not detect an anatomic abnormality, cerebrospinal fluid analysis is done to check for infectious or inflammatory causes, and fasting plasma glucose is measured to check for diabetes.

Treatment of Nerve Root Disorders

  • Treatment of the cause and of pain

  • Surgery (as a last resort)

Specific causes of nerve root disorders are treated.

Acute pain

Management of chronic paintransdermal electrical nerve stimulation, spinal manipulation, acupuncture, medicinal herbs) may be tried if all other treatments are ineffective.

If the pain is intractable or if progressive weakness or sphincteric dysfunction suggest spinal compression, surgical decompression may be necessary.

Key Points

  • Suspect a nerve root disorder in patients who have segmental deficits such as sensory abnormalities in a dermatomal distribution (eg, pain, paresthesias) and/or motor abnormalities (eg, weakness, atrophy, fasciculations, hyporeflexia) at a nerve root level.

  • If patients have a sensory level, bilateral flaccid weakness, and/or sphincter dysfunction, suspect spinal cord compression.

  • If clinical findings suggest radiculopathy, do MRI or CT.

  • Use analgesics and sometimes corticosteroids for acute pain, and consider other medications and other treatments, as well as analgesics, for chronic pain.

  • In patients with progressive weakness and sphincteric dysfunction, consider surgical decompression.

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