Radiculopathy

In previous posts, we’ve discussed chronic pain, including how chronic conditions can affect dentists.  Dentists and surgeons have strenuous jobs that require them to hold unnatural and static positions for extended periods of time, putting stress on their musculoskeletal systems.  Consequently, it is not uncommon for dentists and surgeons to experience spinal issues, including radiculopathy.  In this post we will examine the causes, diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of radiculopathy.

Overview

Radiculopathy is a condition caused by a compressed nerve in the spinal column. This pinched nerve can occur at any spot in the spine, but is typically found in the cervical or lumbar portions of the back and, less frequently, in the thoracic spine.  Symptoms vary based on where the nerve roots are compressed; however, the roots typically become inflamed and cause numbness, weakness, and pain. Those suffering from radiculopathy can find it difficult or impossible to function with the same level of dexterity they used to have.

Symptoms

Generalized symptoms of radiculopathy include:

  • Sharp or shooting pains in the back, arms, legs, or shoulders that may worsen during certain activities
  • Weakness or loss of reflexes in the arms or legs
  • Numbness of the skin or “pins and needles” sensations in the arms or legs
  • Some individuals develop a hypersensitivity to light touch at the affected areas

The location of and specific symptoms will vary based on where the compressed nerve occurs:

  • Cervical Radiculopathy: Pressure on a nerve root in the neck. Symptoms include weakness, burning or tingling sensations, or loss of feeling in the shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers.
  • Lumbar Radiculopathy: Pressure on a nerve root in the lower back. Symptoms include pain, weakness, or numbness that starts in the lower back and radiates through the buttocks down the back of the leg.
  • Thoracic Radiculopathy: A pinched nerve in the upper/mid back. Symptoms include pain in the chest or torso, which can be mistaken for shingles.

Causes

Radiculopathy is caused by the irritation or compression of the nerves where they exit the spine.  This compression can occur in several ways:

  • Disc herniation, osteophytes (bone spurs), osteoarthritis, or the thickening of the surrounding ligaments
  • Scoliosis
  • Inflammation due to trauma or degeneration
  • Conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity
  • Poor posture and/or repetitive movements
  • Aging
  • Genetic pre-disposition

Diagnosis

In order to diagnose radiculopathy, a physician will perform a medical history review and physical examination. The examination will include an evaluation of muscle strength, sensation, and reflexes to detect any abnormalities.  Additional imaging may be required, including:

  • X-rays: to identify trauma, osteoarthritis, or early signs of a tumor or infection
  • MRI or CT scan: to look at the soft tissues around the spine (nerves, discs, ligaments, etc.)
  • Electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction studies: to look at electrical activity along the nerve to identify any damage

Treatments:

The course of treatment for radiculopathy will usually start out conservative, but more aggressive treatment may be needed when pain persists.

  • Medications
  • Weight loss (if necessary) to reduce pressure on problem areas
  • Physical therapy
  • Avoiding activity that causes strain on the neck or back
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Epidural steroid injection
  • Surgery to remove the compression on the spine

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

MedicineNet, https://www.medicinenet.com/radiculopathy/article.htm#what_is_radiculopathy
John Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/nervous_system_disorders/acute_radiculopathies_134,11
WebMD, https://answers.webmd.com/answers
Heathline, https://www.healthline.com/health/radiculopathy#causes
Columbia Spine, http://columbiaspine.org/condition/radiculopathy/
Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318465.php

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 2 – Spinal Osteoarthritis

In the first part of this series, we discussed the fact that dentists and surgeons often suffer from musculoskeletal conditions.  In the remaining posts in this series, we will be looking at particular musculoskeletal conditions, starting with spinal osteoarthritis.

Spinal Osteoarthritis

Definition: Spinal osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. It is a breakdown of the cartilage in the facet joints, which link together the spine’s vertebrae.

Overview: At the top and bottom of each vertebra is a small pair of joints called facets. Facets connect the vertebrae in order to restrict movement in certain directions and to allow the spine to move as one fluid unit.  The surfaces of the facets, like any other joint in the human body, are covered by a lubricating cartilage which allows them to operate smoothly and with little friction.

When the cartilage protecting the facets degrades or wears down, the bony surfaces of the facets rub against each other.  This can cause inflammation, severe pain, and the formation of osteophytes (bone spurs) on or around the joint surfaces.  It may also cause numbness and/or weakness in the legs and arms as a result of contact between the vertebrae and the nerves leaving the spinal cord.

Symptoms: Neck pain and stiffness. Severe pain may radiate down into shoulders and up the neck.  Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the fingers, hands, and/or arms are also often present.  Usually back discomfort is relieved when a person is lying down.  Studies have also linked anxiety and depression to osteoarthritis.[1]

Causes: Spinal osteoarthritis frequently occurs in conjunction with degenerative disc disease.  As the discs between the vertebrae in the spinal column degrade and decrease in volume, the increased pressure and contact between the facet joints can cause an accelerated degradation of the joint cartilage.

Repetitive strain or stress on the spine, often due to poor posture, to is a common cause of spinal osteoarthritis.  People with jobs requiring repetitive movements and strained positions are considered to be at greater risk for conditions like spinal osteoarthritis; however, injury or trauma to a joint or a genetic defect involving cartilage are also causes.  Dentists are at a higher risk than many other professions to develop this condition due to the awkward, static postures they must maintain.

Diagnosis: X-rays may be used to identify loss of cartilage, bone spurs, and bone damage. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to analyze the intervertebral discs and the nerves exiting the spinal column.

Treatment: Conservative, non-invasive treatment plans may include some combination of heat/cold therapy, medication, physical therapy, strength training, and stretching. In more severe cases, a surgical treatment such as spinal fusion is utilized.

Our next post in this series will examine spinal stenosis, another common cause of neck and back pain.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Sharma, A., et. al, Anxiety and depression in patients with osteoarthritis: impact and management challenges, Open Access Rheumatology: Research and Reviews 2016:8 (2016).

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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