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Physician Blog Posts

Read articles on back pain, new advances in treatment options, and other current spine-related topics from our doctors.

Helping our patients feel better and improve their quality of life is our goal at the Inova Spine Program. The articles below are written by our expert clinicians to offer our patients timely tips and information on a variety of back and spine topics to help you in your daily life.

Latest Blog Post – "Tingling, Weakness, Pain: Could You Have Peripheral Nerve Injury?

By John F. Hamilton, MD, PhD

peripheral nerve injuryIf you've experienced numbness and pain in your fingers or toes, you might be tempted to wait it out to see if it gets better on its own. But those symptoms might indicate a peripheral nerve injury, also known as peripheral neuropathy.

There are dozens of types of peripheral nerve injuries, with various causes. In many cases, these injuries are caused by a nerve that’s compressed due to injury or repetitive movements (like typing or swinging a golf club). The longer these injuries go untreated, the worse they can get. And in some cases, if you wait too long to treat them, you can end up with permanent damage to your nerves.

If you’re concerned you might be experiencing signs of peripheral nerve injury, here’s what you should know.

Peripheral Nerves: What's Their Function?

Nerves carry information to and from the brain. The spine and brain make up the central nervous system, while peripheral nerves connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. There are three types of peripheral nerves, each with an important function:

  • Motor nerves send messages between the brain and muscles, allowing you to move your muscles.
  • Sensory nerves send signals about feelings such as touch, temperature and pain.
  • Autonomic nerves control automatic processes like heart rate, sweating and digestion.

Many nerve problems affect all three types of nerves, while some involve just one or two.

Types of Peripheral Neuropathy

There are many ways that peripheral nerves can be injured. They can be damaged as a result of diseases such as diabetes, blood vessel problems or autoimmune diseases. But when a single nerve is injured, the cause is usually some kind of trauma, compression or repetitive movement.

That nerve damage may happen suddenly, such as during a car accident or sports injury. Often, though, peripheral nerve injuries develop over time because of injuries or repetitive movements that compress the nerve. There are many examples, but some common ones include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. This occurs when one of the major nerves in the hand is compressed, causing tingling, numbness, pain and weakness in the hand and arm.
  • Ulnar nerve entrapment. This condition occurs when the ulnar nerve in the arm becomes compressed either at the elbow or the wrist, causing pain, numbness and tingling in the hand and fingers.
  • Peroneal nerve dysfunction. This condition occurs when the peroneal nerve in the leg becomes compressed, causing numbness and tingling in the foot or leg, and an inability to lift the foot.

Treating Peripheral Nerve Injuries

Some people with symptoms of peripheral nerve disorders might put off getting treatment because they want to avoid surgery. In reality, we try to manage the symptoms with conservative measures such as behavior modification or splinting, with the understanding that surgery is a last resort. But the longer symptoms go untreated, the more likely it is you’ll develop permanent damage to the nerves.

When nerves are being compressed, as in conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome or ulnar nerve entrapment, the first step is usually to cut back on the activity that’s causing the injury. That might mean taking some time off work, or finding workarounds (like improving the ergonomics of your workstation, or using voice memos instead of typing whenever possible). Doctors will usually recommend using a brace or splint on the injured area. Physical therapy may also help.

For mild to moderate cases, these treatments can often reverse the compression and restore the feeling and function to your damaged nerve. But in more severe cases, surgery may be the only option to relieve compression on the nerve.

Such surgeries usually improve pain right away. But it can take time for numbness to fade, and sometimes it doesn’t go away completely. If you’ve experienced atrophy in the muscles as a result of nerve injury, you may never fully recover your previous level of muscle endurance.

In other words, the sooner peripheral nerve injuries are treated, the better. You’ll be more likely to avoid surgery, and have a better long-term outcome, if you don’t put it off. The Inova Spine Program has an excellent peripheral nerve team specialized in treating these injuries.

Blog Post History

Tingling, Weakness, Pain: Could You Have Peripheral Nerve Injury? (Author: John F. Hamilton, MD, PhD

When Tech is a Pain in the Neck (includes strength and stretching exercises)

Is Spine Surgery the Answer to your Back Pain? (Author: Corey Wallach, MD)

Injured Your Back? Dos and Don’t for Recovery (Author: Angela Santini, MD)

A Weighty Issue: An overloaded backpack can damage your child’s spine and your posture

Pain in the Neck? Artificial Disk Replacement Might Be the Answer (Author: Ali Moshirfar, MD)

Gardening Pains: Prevent Back Injury When Doing Yardwork (Author: Ali Moshirfar, MD)

Suffering From Back Pain? Let Us Help You Navigate Your Treatment Journey (Author: Carey Vincent, RN)

Spine Surgery Pioneers: Inova Spine Program Surgeons Teach New Techniques to International Visitors (Author: Ronald C. Childs, MD)

Winter Storm Safety Tips: Prevent back pain and other health events (Author: Carlo Alfano, health coach)

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