Pinched nerves are a fairly common condition, affecting around 85 out of 100,000 Americans every year, which is slightly less than one percent of the population. For most people, a pinched nerve will be uncomfortable but harmless. The pain will pass within a few days and the patient can resume work and their other daily activities. However, this painful condition is still often preventable. 

Doctors have started to notice a link between stress and pinched nerves – along with other impacts that stress has on your spinal health. Learn more about how these two factors correlate and how you can make a few small adjustments in your life to reduce your risk for pinched nerves. 


Understanding Pinched Nerves

Nerves run throughout your body as an information super highway. There is a large bundle of nerves that runs down your spine and then smaller trails of nerves that spread through your arms and legs. Every feeling, from the texture of the smartphone screen on your finger to the itchy bug bite on your leg is communicated to the brain through this nerve system. 

A pinched nerve occurs when bones, muscle, or other bodily tissues compresses one of your nerves – putting pressure on it. Pinched nerves can occur throughout your body. For example, when you bump your elbow (your funny bone), you are hitting the ulnar nerve. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when there is a compressed nerve in your hand. 

Pinched nerves are common throughout the neck and back regions of the body. They are often caused by spinal compression – either from poor posture, repetitive movements, a bad sleep position, or problems with your spinal discs. While most pinched nerves in the spine will clear up within a few days, some people can experience pain, tingling, and numbness for weeks and might need to seek treatment from a specialist. 

Your stress level has a lot to do with your risk factors for having a pinched nerve. You don’t need to contribute to your stress levels by adding back pain to the mix. By managing your stress, you can improve your overall health in several ways.  


Unveiling the Stress Factor

Stress is a natural and healthy response. It is your body’s way of alerting you to potential danger and situations you need to get out of. Unfortunately, the causes of stress in most Americans have changed over time. Most people are less stressed about predator attacks (like our caveman ancestors) and more stressed about work deadlines, unpaid bills, and interpersonal relationships. The causes of stress and your body’s neutral reaction to it can lead to a variety of symptoms, ranging from increased soreness to high anxiety

The Muscle-Stress Connection

When you are stressed, your muscles tense up. You are more likely to experience tension headaches and other symptoms like high blood pressure or an upset stomach. This increased muscle tension can have a significant impact on your body. Primarily, it reduces circulation and creates a build-up of lactic acid in different muscle groups. You might feel sore in certain areas of your body – even if you haven’t used those muscles recently. 

This muscle tension can also lead to nerve compression. The muscles are in a state of imbalance compared to how they normally rest. This can place more pressure on nearby nerves, leading to symptoms of pain or numbness. The risk of nerve compression is particularly high for people who remain in the same stressed position for long periods of time – like an office worker racing against a deadline at their desk. 

Postural Impact of Stress

Your posture also has a lot to do with your risk of nerve compression. You could potentially place pressure on a nerve in your back due to slouching or sitting too close to your screen.  

Think of how you sit when you are stressed at work – you likely hunched over your desk, you reduce the number of breaks you take, and you keep your neck in one position while you face the screen. This compounds with your body’s natural desire to tense your muscles when stressed, leaving you feeling even more physically exhausted after a long day. 

Someone who isn’t working in a stressful environment might sit in a more relaxed position and take time to walk around and stretch during the work day. This allows them to mentally decompress while also decompressing the muscles, bones, and nerves in the spine. 


Stress and Your Spinal Health

A pinched nerve can detail your workday and make an impending deadline seem even more impossible than it was before. However, this is often a basic condition that will heal with pain medication, heating pads, and rest. Unfortunately, prolonged stress can have a long-term impact on your body. Over time, you could develop serious spinal problems that aren’t as easily treated. 

Disc Degeneration and Stress

If you have poor posture due to workplace stress, you could be at risk of developing disc degeneration. Sitting for long periods of time can place your spine in an uncomfortable position. This means your vertebrae (the bones that make up your spine) place added pressure on the squishy discs that provide padding in between them. Over time, these spinal discs can break, wear out, or get pushed out of place – a process which is known as disc degeneration. 

At times, the spinal discs will get pushed by the vertebrae from their natural position into the nerve canal. This is known as a bulging or herniated disc and can lead to radiating pain and tingling that travels through your arms or legs.  

Disc degeneration can be treated in a variety of ways. Your doctor might recommend a series of non-invasive treatments like low-impact exercise or anti-inflammatory medication. However, if these options don’t work, your problem disc might need to be removed through surgery, such as  artificial disc replacement (ADR).  

Taking a step back from a stressful situation can help your mental health while allowing you to move your spine and give your vertebrae a break. This can protect your spinal health in the long run. 

Spinal Stenosis and Stress

Stress can have short and long-term effects on the body. In the short run, you might feel sore and exhausted at the end of the day. In the long run, the natural wear and tear on your body could lead to a variety of painful conditions. 

For example, spinal stenosis is a condition where the spinal canal narrows and puts pressure on the nerves. This is sometimes related to arthritis and is caused by the natural wear of the body. If your spine is under a significant amount of stress each day, you could develop this condition and might need surgery.   

Think about what you ask your body to do each day and you reward it for its hard work. You might not think that you are asking much by driving to work and sitting at a desk most of the day, but stress and poor posture could have more of an impact than you realize. 


Managing Stress to Prevent Pinched Nerves

There is good news if you are worried about developing pinched nerves or other spinal conditions due to stress: you can make a few small changes to your day-to-day activities to reduce your stress levels and improve your overall health. Here are a few things to consider. 

Stress Reduction Techniques

There are multiple ways to reduce your stress levels and care for your body. In fact, the two often go hand-in-hand. Here are a few ways to focus on your health so you can approach your daily challenges with lower stress levels. 

  • Disengage from the source of stress: get up from your desk and walk around, meditate, read a book, or play a game on your phone. This will help to clear your head while resting your body. 
  • Engage in physical activity: this can range from yoga to walking, biking, dancing, or weight lifting. Exercise also releases feel-good hormones to reduce stress.  
  • Care for your body: eat a balanced lunch away from your desk, go to bed early, take a shower, and practice other forms of self-care. Your body needs mental and physical downtime. 

Too often, these enjoyable activities and little breaks are eliminated when we are stressed; however, this is when they are more important than ever. Spending 15 minutes walking away from your desk can help your muscles relax while giving your brain a break. 

Ergonomics and Posture

Being aware of stress can also help your spinal health. You will start to notice when you are slouching and when you are developing back pain because of your stressful experiences. Getting up for regular breaks can also help you reset your posture in a more comfortable and healthier position. Here are a few ways to position yourself for good spinal health:

  • Keep work close to your body: you shouldn’t feel stretched over your desk or workspace. 
  • Let your joints be in a neutral position: this will help your muscles relax while preventing natural wear. 
  • Alternate your posture and movements: don’t stay in the same position for several hours on end. 

Additionally, listen to your body. If you experience pain and discomfort, your body is trying to tell you something. You might need a new office chair or adjustments to how you sit in order to restore your spinal health. 


Stress Can Have a Big Impact on Your Spinal Health

People often consider stress to be a mental condition, but it can have a very real physical impact on your body. Basic stress management, from improving your posture to taking regular breaks, can make you feel physically and mentally better. It can also reduce your risk of pinched nerves and other painful flare-ups. Listen to your body and take stress seriously. It is important to protect your health in the long run.  

If you experience a pinched nerve, visit your local doctor or urgent care center if the symptoms are painful. However, if the pinched nerve doesn’t respond to treatment, there could be a bigger problem. You may need to meet with a spine specialist like Dr. Todd H. Lanman to identify the cause of your pain and how to alleviate it. Request a consultation today if you live with back pain and Dr. Lanman will meet with you to perform a comprehensive assessment and develop a plan to treat and eliminate your pain. 


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can stress alone cause a pinched nerve?

No. While stress can increase your chances of having a pinched nerve because of increased muscle tension, it cannot actively cause a pinched nerve. If you experience high levels of stress, know that you are at a higher risk of a pinched nerve.

What are the common symptoms of a pinched nerve?

The main three symptoms of a pinched nerve are sharp, unexpected pains, numbness, and tingling. These symptoms can occur at the site of the pinched nerve and spread down the body. For example, a pinched nerve in your lower back could lead to numbness in your legs. 

What are the surgical treatments for a pinched nerve?

If your pinched nerve is severe, there could be other issues affecting that part of your body. Your doctor might recommend artificial disc replacement (ADR) to remove and replace any spinal discs that are placing pressure on your nerves. If you have spinal stenosis, they may recommend a laminectomy to reduce pressure on your nerve canal. 

Is it possible for stress to worsen an existing pinched nerve?

Yes. Stress can worsen a variety of existing health conditions because the body is experiencing a fear response. This is particularly true if your stress levels prevent you from eating, sleeping, and exercising at normal levels. You are also at a higher risk for worsening an existing pinched nerve if you keep the same pressure on the nerve by maintaining the same actions (like poor desk posture) that caused it in the first place. 

When should you see a doctor about a pinched nerve?

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving within a few days after a pinched nerve. You should also seek medical help if the pinched nerve doesn’t respond to traditional treatment (like pain medication and heating pads).


Ready to reclaim your life? Get in touch today.