What You Need to Know About Nerve Injuries

Most people have hit their “funny bone” at some point in their lives. What you might not know is that you are hitting a nerve, not a bone. Nerves are incredibly important structures in our body. When you injure a nerve, you can experience some strange symptoms. In this article we will discuss what a nerve is, how they can be injured, and what we can do to help treat nerve injuries.

What is a nerve?

A nerve is a special type of tissue that can carry signals from one area to another. Nerves start from the spinal cord and branch out to every area of the body. The spinal cord and all the nerves that branch from it are collectively called the Peripheral Nervous System.

They give the signals to contract muscles, and send sensory information from touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, and balance back to the brain.

What happens in a nerve injury?

As important as nerves are, their structure makes them vulnerable to injury. Unlike muscles which usually span a small distance around a joint, a single peripheral nerve can travel all the way from the spine to the fingers or toes! This means that an injury to the nerve can cause symptoms anywhere along its length. These symptoms can then range from tingling and numbness, to shooting pain, to muscle weakness.

Types of nerve injuries

Nerve injuries can come in many forms, some more severe than others. In general, the more parts of a nerve are damaged, the longer it will take to heal, and the more likely there will be problems after it is healed. Here are some common peripheral nerve-related injuries:

  • Pinched/compressed nerve: Other tissues in the body press against the nerve, causing pain and dysfunction. This often happens just as the nerve leaves the spine, but sometimes can happen in areas where the nerve passes between muscle or bone.
  • Stretch: The opposite of compression, overstretching a nerve can also cause injury to the tissue. The severity of nerve stretch injuries can range from minor symptoms that will disappear over several weeks, to irreversible nerve damage.
  • Laceration: The nerve gets cut by a sharp external object like a knife, and the amount of damage and symptoms depends on how much of the nerve is cut.

What is a pinched nerve?

A pinched nerve is one of the most common nerve injuries in the general population. This occurs when it becomes compressed or trapped by another structure in the body. There are a few very common places for this to occur:

  • Spinal segments: Right as the nerves exit the spine, they pass through small spaces in the bone. The disc or vertebra can pinch the nerve in this space (for more information on disc protrusion, click here).
  • Carpal tunnel: There is a small space in the wrist where lots of tendons, blood vessels, and nerves travel through into the hands. Repetitive activities involving the wrist and inflammation can compress this space, causing nerve symptoms in the hand (for more information on carpal tunnel syndrome, click here).
  • Sciatica: Your sciatic nerve is a thick bundle of nerves that leaves the spine and travels into your leg. Sometimes this nerve can get pinched, often either at the lower back or when it passes through the hip by tight hip muscles (for more information on sciatica, click here).

Pinched nerves often shoot pain, tingling, and/or numbness down the length of the nerve but are often reversible when you treat the source of the pinching.

What else could this be?

Peripheral nerve injuries have very characteristic symptoms (tingling; numbness; burning, shooting, or sparkling pain), but sometimes other injuries can mimic a PNI:

  • Spinal cord injury
  • Stroke
  • Vascular injury
  • Musculoskeletal injury

Working with a primary healthcare provider or physiotherapist is very important to make sure you aren’t overlooking something more serious!

Physiotherapy treatment for nerve injuries

Treatment for a peripheral nerve injury greatly depends on how the nerve is injured. For instance, if the nerve is being constantly compressed at the spine, treatment will focus on helping to decompress the nerve. On the other hand, if the nerve injury is related to a stretch, crush, or laceration injury, treatment must focus on speeding the regrowing and recovery of the nerve.

When the structure of a nerve is compromised, the nerve usually has the ability to regenerate – slowly. Nerves regrow at about 1-2 mm per day, meaning that as long as the nerve is at least partially intact, it can still regenerate.

Here are some examples of physiotherapy treatments for a peripheral nerve injury:

  • McKenzie exercises: These exercises can help reverse the effects of poor posture and decompress nerves at the source.
  • Nerve flossing: Sometimes connective tissue can stick to your nerves and cause problems. Nerve flossing is a technique that helps to free up sticky tissue and improve the mobility of the nerve.
  • Desensitization: While a nerve is recovering from damage, affected areas may become very sensitive because of the nerve growth. Desensitization techniques then help to reduce the sensitivity of these areas and restore normal sensation.
  • Postural strengthening: Posture is a big contributor to chronic nerve injuries. Poor head, shoulder, or back posture can cause compression or stretching to the affected nerves. Working to improve posture through changing behaviours and strengthening postural muscles will help relieve the tension on the affected nerves.

If you are experiencing tingling, numbness, or shooting or widespread pains, book a session with us and get started on your journey to recovery!

About The Author

Jonathan Rankin obtained his MSc in Physiotherapy at McMaster University, and also completed both a BSc and an MSc in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. He has a strong background in exercise, from working as a personal trainer at the University of Ottawa to conducting research on exercise during pregnancy in his master’s degree.

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