Pinched Nerve in Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Effective Treatments (Science Based)

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Pinched Nerve in Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Effective Treatments
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A pinched nerve in your shoulder is used to describe shoulder pain or irritation caused by a pinched (compressed) nerve in the upper or middle part of your spine. The pinched nerve can also cause the shoulder pain and irritation to spread from your shoulder blade down your arm. Nerves in the upper part of your spine and neck can become entrapped and cause tingling sensations, shooting pains, or muscle weakness in the shoulder.

Shoulder pain due to pinched nerve could be a result of an injury, herniated disc, or inflammation of the nerve. For example, over-stretching your arm or shoulder, trauma from a fall, or holding your arm over your head can cause shoulder pain due to nerve entrapment. Also, arthritis, wear and tear, or an age-related conditions can put pressure on the nerve root, sending shooting pains across your shoulder as well as your shoulder blade.

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Home remedies for a pinched nerve include applying ice packs, massaging with essential oils, stretch exercises, or physical therapy. Very often you may prevent and cure an entrapped nerve with specific exercises to strengthen the muscles and ligaments in your back.

This article looks at the many causes of pinched nerves in your shoulder and the types of pain that entrapped shoulder nerves cause. You will also find helpful ways to treat upper back and shoulder pain that results from pinching a nerve.

What is a Pinched Nerve in the Shoulder?

The pinched nerve pain in shoulder doesn’t actually originate from your shoulder. It is a result of entrapped or compressed nerve in your upper back or neck, and the pain radiates from the entrapped nerves in your spine to your shoulder. This pain may be made worse by turning your head or straining your neck.1

Doctors from the University of Maryland say that your spine is made up of 24 vertebrae (small bones). These small bones are connected by ligaments and muscles that help to support your upper body. Your vertebrae are separated by soft discs that look like gel-filled cushions. These spinal discs help to absorb pressure in the spine and also prevent irritation and back pain.1

Neurologist Dr. Francisco de Assis Aquino Gondim says that nerves run the length of your spine and control many functions in the body. Because of their proximity to the vertebrae, these nerves can easily become entrapped or “pinched.”2

Your spine is divided into 3 main segments or regions. These are:1

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  • Cervical spine. Your cervical spine starts just below the nape of your neck and consists of 7 vertebrae. Your cervical spine extends to your shoulder blades (scapula).
  • Thoracic spine. This part of your back is sometimes called the thoracic back. The thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae that start from the top of your shoulders to about 5 inches below your shoulder blades.
  • Lumbar spine. Consisting of 5 vertebrae, your lumbar spine is in your lower back area. Problems with your lumbar spine is a major source of lower back pain in many individuals.

Dr. Carol DerSarkissian on WebMD explains that an irritated or compressed nerve in your cervical spinal area is called cervical radiculopathy. Any abnormal pressure on cervical nerves can irritate and inflame the nerve root. This causes pain along the length of the nerve and can affect the shoulder, hands, and arms.3

Types of pain caused by pinched shoulder nerve

Doctors from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons say that pinched cervical nerves cause varying degrees and types of shoulder and neck pain. Depending on the amount of pressure on the nerve root and location of the irritated nerve, you may have the following types of pain:8

  • Sensation of “pins and needles” anywhere in your shoulder, shoulder blade, or arms
  • Burning sharp pain that radiates from your neck along your shoulders
  • Loss of sensation
  • Increased feeling of pain when moving your head or neck
  • Putting your hand on your head results in some pain relief

Symptoms of Pinched Nerve in Shoulder

Pinched nerves in the cervical region and neck usually cause shoulder pain or pain that seems or originate from the shoulder blade. However, it can be challenging to differentiate between shoulder pain caused by an irritated nerve from that caused by muscle or ligament damage.

The 3 main symptoms of pinched nerve in shoulder are:

  • Shoulder pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Muscle weakness

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain or shoulder blade (scapula) pain is the most common symptom of a pinched nerve in the neck or upper spinal area. Sometimes the shoulder pain gets worse when sleeping at night.

The journal American Family Physician reports that pain from an entrapped cervical nerve can radiate to the shoulder, neck, arms, or hands. The pain is often localized to the shoulder blade area and moving the neck can intensify the pain.4

Some people describe pain from a pinched nerve as sharp shooting pains or burning pain that travels along the nerve. Depending on the amount of pressure on the nerve root, you may just have a tingling (pins and needles) sensation in your shoulder.5

Another type of pain that cervical radiculopathy causes is headache pain, especially pain in the back of the head. Researchers from the University of Maryland report that individuals with pinched cervical nerves suffer from occipital headaches and neck pain.1 These types of headaches can radiate to the front of your head and be one of the reasons for pain behind the temples.

Numbness and tingling

Along with pain in your shoulder blade, you may have a sensation of tingling or numbness in your shoulder, arm, or hands.

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Dr. Danette Taylor, who works in the Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology at Michigan State University, says that pressure on the nerve often leads to numbness or tingling. The tingling sensation may come and go or become persistent. This can be accompanied by sharp “electrical” shooting pains as well. Usually, when the pinched nerve is in the cervical spine, tingling is felt in the scapula (shoulder blade) and the arm, and you may even have tingling in the head.7

Muscle weakness

Another symptom of a pinched nerve in your cervical spinal region is muscle weakness of the shoulder blade or arms.

According to a report published in the European Spine Journal, damage to the nerves at the top of the spine can result in muscle weakness. This can affect an individual’s ability to lift heavy objects or raise one’s hands above your head.6

What Causes Pinched (Compressed) Nerve in Shoulder?

Let’s look in more detail at some of the reasons for pinched nerve pain in your shoulder. Sometimes, just knowing what causes shoulder nerve pain can help to avoid habits or practices that irritate or damage nerves in your back.

Herniated (slipped) disc

If one of the discs in your cervical spine bulges or herniates, it can press on a nerve and cause excruciating shoulder and neck pain. Injury, incorrect lifting, or damage to your vertebrae can result in the jelly-like disc rupturing.

According to doctors from the Cleveland Clinic, a herniated disc in the neck will cause debilitating pain in the shoulder blade and neck. The burning pain can also shoot along the top of your shoulders to your arm. In cases of a severe herniated cervical disc, the pain may even extend as far as your fingers.9

Other symptoms of a cervical disc injury can include:10

  • Neck pain and a stiff neck
  • Weakness in one or both of your shoulders or arms
  • Pain moving your head

Wear and tear

Over time, wear and tear can cause degeneration of the vertebrae in your cervical region that can result in a painful pinched nerve in the shoulder. Pinched nerve pain in the shoulder can also result from degenerative diseases like arthritis that can damage nerves in the shoulder.

According to expert in rheumatology Dr. David Zelman, cervical radiculopathy is a complication of wear and tear caused by osteoarthritis of the neck. This can cause shooting pains along the shoulder and down one or both arms. This can be a reason for shoulder pain that is worse in the morning.11

Wear and tear of the cervical spine can also result in the following symptoms:

  • Stiff neck and pain when moving the head from side to side
  • Frequent headaches at the back of the head
  • An audible grinding noise when turning your neck
  • Muscles spasms in the shoulders or upper back

Home Remedies for Pinched Nerve

Sometimes, the shoulder pain caused by a pinched nerve goes away on its own, but there are many natural ways to get rid of pinched nerve pain faster. Simple exercises can help to stretch the nerves in your back and release tension and pressure and at the same time strengthen your back to prevent further nerve damage.

Exercises to Relieve a Pinched Nerve

One of the best ways to get rid of the pain that a pinched nerve causes is to perform regular back exercises.

According to the journal Clinical Medicine: Case Reports, home exercise programs are effective in relieving the symptoms of cervical disc herniation. Doctors found that gentle stretching of the neck helps to give pain relief by widening the spaces between the vertebrae. This also helps to prevent further disc and vertebrae injuries in the future.12

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“Framing the door” exercise for treating pinched nerve and shoulder pain

This exercise helps to release tension in the shoulders and also stretch your neck.

  1. Stand in a doorway or imagine that you are standing in a doorway.
  2. Stretch your arms in front of you and place your palms together.
  3. Turn your palms outward and extend your hand to the top of the door frame.
  4. Place your palms on either side of the door frame.
  5. Bring your arms down the door frame as far as you can.
  6. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 10-20 seconds.
  7. Repeat several times to strengthen your shoulders and help release tension from your neck.

Remember not to tense your shoulders when doing this exercise. Your shoulders shouldn’t be rounded when squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Exercise to get rid of pinched nerve in shoulder

Neck stretching exercises for pinched nerve in shoulder

Stretching your neck can help to increase space between your cervical vertebrae and help release pressure from a nerve root.

  1. Sit on a chair with your back straight.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, hold, and relax them. Repeat 10 times.
  3. Roll your shoulders by raising them, pushing them forward, down, back, and then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
  4. Relax your shoulders and gently move your left ear towards your shoulder blade. Repeat 10 times. Repeat on the other side.

Home treatment for pinched nerve with an ice pack

Another way to get fast pain relief from a pinched nerve in your shoulder is to place an ice pack on the painful area.

According to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jason Eck, ice packs can help to alleviate shooting or burning pains caused by a pinched nerve.13

To make an ice pack for your sore neck or shoulder, this is what you should do:

  1. Put ice in a sealable plastic bag.
  2. Put some water in the bag to make it easier to apply to your shoulder or neck.
  3. Squeeze the excess air from the bag and seal it.
  4. Wrap the ice pack in a damp towel and place on the painful area on your shoulder or neck.
  5. Leave for 15 minutes.
  6. Repeat 2-3 times a day to reduce irritation and inflammation in the pinched nerve.

For sore back and shoulder muscles, you can use a warm compress for pain relief.

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Essential oils to relieve shoulder pain

Another way to help reduce the irritating persistent pain that entrapped nerves cause is to massage the area with a pain-relieving essential oil blend. Many essential oils have analgesic activity and can help to treat any kind of mild to severe nerve pain.

According to a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, essential oils are a natural remedy for shoulder pain. The study showed that people who suffered from shoulder pain due to nerve and muscle damage reported a 30% reduction in pain when essential oils were used in aromatherapy acupressure.14

To treat shoulder nerve pain with essential oils, this is what you should do:

  1. In one tablespoon of sweet almond oil, add 3 drops of peppermint oil, 3 drops lavender oil, and 1-2 drops rosemary oil and mix well.
  2. Put some of the essential oil remedy on your fingertips and massage the back of your neck and shoulder blade to release tension and pain.
  3. Use the essential oils blend for relieving nerve pain 2 or 3 times a day to help naturally manage your incessant shoulder pain.

Other Ways to Treat a Pinched Nerve in Shoulder

There are many other practical ways to relieve shoulder pain caused by compressed nerve without having to resort to painkillers.

Chiropractor

The Journal of Prolotherapy reports that a combination of pain-relieving techniques including treatment by a chiropractor help to cure a pinched nerve. It was found that spinal manipulation can release pressure from cervical nerve roots and resolve the debilitating painful symptoms of cervical radiculopathy.15

Physical therapy

Physical therapy is another way to treat shoulder nerve pain naturally. A physical therapist can work out a regime of exercises to target specific areas of the spine to strengthen the back and reduce pressure on the spinal vertebrae and muscles. The Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy reports that physical therapy should help around 80% of patients with cervical radiculopathy.16

Correct posture

Keeping correct posture when sitting or standing can help to prevent excess pressure on your back muscles and stop cervical nerves causing shoulder pain.17 To learn how to improve your posture, please read my article on exercises to improve your posture.

Lose weight

If you are overweight, you should try to lose as much weight as you can to relieve pressure and tension from your lower back and cervical spine. The journal Pain Research and Management reports that obesity increases a person’s risk of disc herniation of the cervical spine and is a common cause of lower back pain.18

Support equipment

Depending on the extent of the nerve damage, a chiropractor or physical therapist may recommend the temporary use of support equipment. A soft cervical collar can help to support your upper spine and relieve pain from damaged nerves. Support braces can also help to relieve upper back pain by taking the pressure off spinal nerves.

When to See a Doctor

Usually, you can get pain relief for upper back pain, thoracic back pain, or lumbar pain by using effective home remedies. However, if the shoulder pain becomes persistent or chronic and interferes with your well-being, you should visit your doctor.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there are some circumstances when it’s always good to see a doctor for shoulder pain.19 These are:

  • Your shoulder pain is intense and interferes with your daily activities.
  • You have weakness or loss of feeling in one or both of your hands.
  • You have squeezing chest pains that radiate to your left shoulder.
  • You can’t lift every-day items because of shoulder pain.

Read these related articles:

Article Sources

  1. UMMS. Guide to anatomy and function of the spine.
  2. Medscape. Topographic and functional anatomy of the spinal cord.
  3. WebMD. Cervical radiculopathy.
  4. AAFP. Cervical radiculopathy.
  5. MayoClinic. Pinched nerve.
  6. Eur Spine J. 1997 Jul; 6(4): 256–266.
  7. MedicineNet. Pinched nerve.
  8. OrthoInfo. Cervical radiculopathy.
  9. ClevelandClinic. Herniated disc.
  10. WebMD. Cervical disc disease neck pain.
  11. WebMD. Cervical osteoarthritis.
  12. Clin Med Case Rep. 2008; 1: 45–49.
  13. eMedicineHealth. Pinched nerve.
  14. J Altern Complement Med.2007 Mar;13(2):247-51.
  15. JournalOfProlotherapy. Non-operative treatment of cervical radiculopathy.
  16. J Man Manip Ther. 2008; 16(3): 129–135.
  17. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017 Aug; 29(8): 1472–1474.
  18. Pain Res Manag.2016;2016:2487924.
  19. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Shoulder pain
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2 Responses to Pinched Nerve in Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Effective Treatments (Science Based)

  1. Loly says:

    Hi Jenny,
    Very helpful article..How about accupuncture for pinched shoulder nerve?Thanks..

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