cervical radiculopathy

Cervical Radiculopathy Exercises and Physical Therapy

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Medically reviewed by Misty Seidenburg

An irritated or pinched nerve in the neck can cause considerable neck and arm pain, among other problems. Yet this common condition can often be effectively managed with physical therapy, a proven method that alleviates these symptoms and enhances muscle strength and mobility.

Learn about the causes, risk factors, and treatments for cervical radiculopathy and discover simple home head, neck, and shoulder cervical radiculopathy  exercises. These exercises are easy to perform, empowering you to take control of your condition.

What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?

The cervical spine, or the neck region of the spine, comprises seven stacked bones, or vertebrae. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves surround these bones. In between these bones are shock-absorbing vertebral discs. Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root from the spinal cord is compressed by surrounding muscle or other tissues.

Nerves serve many functions in the human body. They detect sensations in areas of the skin or internal organs and stimulate specific muscles and organs to help them move and function normally. A nerve that is compressed or irritated will not perform properly, impacting mobility and function.

Cervical Radiculopathy Causes

Compression of a nerve in the cervical spine has a few primary causes:

  • Degenerative spinal changes: Cervical radiculopathy commonly occurs from cervical spondylosis, which is age-related wear and tear. More than 85 percent of individuals aged 60 and up are affected by cervical spondylosis. It is also referred to as arthritis of the neck.
  • A bulging or herniated disc: Cervical radiculopathy can be linked to acute body trauma, like a fall, car accident, or sports injury. A sudden, awkward movement like lifting, twisting, or pulling can also cause a herniated disc. This condition can also develop over time, especially with laborers and athletes whose activities cause repetitive compression force throughout the head and spine.
  • Poor posture: The positions we use to sit, stand, work, and sleep can put unnecessary pressure on the body. The back, shoulders, and upper back are especially vulnerable to problems because so many of us spend serval hours a day hunched over our computer and phone screens.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy

Because the nerves connecting the cervical spine extend to the arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back, cervical radiculopathy symptoms can radiate from the neck into these areas.

Possible signs of a pinched nerve in the neck are:

  • Pain
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Headaches
  • Weak reflexes
  • Muscle weakness

Cervical radiculopathy pain is often described as sharp or burning. You may notice your discomfort increases when you move your neck a certain way. Placing your hands on your head can offer slight relief because this can temporarily ease pressure on some of the irritated nerves.

Cervical Radiculopathy Treatment With Physical Therapy

A pinched nerve can often be successfully managed with conservative, noninvasive treatments. shows that physical therapy’s combination of therapeutic exercise and manual therapy is most effective for relieving pain and increasing function and active range of motion (AROM).

A systematic review of clinical trials on manual therapy and cervical radiculopathy found these treatments were effective in symptom reduction in all studies, regardless of the type of therapies used.

Manual therapies used to relieve a pinched nerve include:

  • Massage: the application of pressure to the body’s soft tissues to relax muscles and ease pain
  • Manipulation: the application of pressure to joints to improve range of motion and promote tissue recovery
  • Cervical traction: the use of one’s hands or a device to gently pull the head away from the neck to create space in the cervical spine
  • Dry needling: the insertion of therapeutic-grade needles into tight bands of muscle to reduce tension and other symptoms
  • Joint mobilization: the application of slow, measured movements directly to the joints used to improve mobility and improve pain

A physical therapy program for cervical radiculopathy also involves exercises to strengthen neck muscles and relieve pressure on cervical nerves. Physical therapists also provide education on ways to prevent neck and shoulder pain and maintain healthy posture to make everyday activities safer and more comfortable. Every physical therapy treatment plan is customized for the patient to reflect their unique needs, limitations, and goals.

Cervical Radiculopathy Exercises You Can Do at Home

If you have been diagnosed with a pinched nerve or notice tightness or soreness after a long day, try these simple and gentle movements to ease pressure on your neck and upper body. (Note: Always check with your healthcare provider or physical therapist before starting a new exercise program.)

Neck Flexion and Extension

These movements improve ROM and are especially helpful if you have forward head posture from working on a computer, gaming, or texting for long periods.

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and arms to your sides. Keep your abdominal muscles tight and your shoulders relaxed throughout these stretches.
  • Slowly drop your chin to your chest and hold for 15-20 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Now, slowly look up to the ceiling as far as you can allowing your chin to tilt up to the ceiling.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and return to the starting position. Perform 2-4 repetitions.

Lateral Neck Flexion

This exercise helps ease pain and stiffness and increase ROM.

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and arms to your sides.
  • Gently bend your head to the right, bringing your right ear to meet your right shoulder.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat this stretch on the left side.
  • Complete 10 repetitions on each side.

Chin Tuck

Chin tucks, or cervical retraction, help increase the mobility of the neck

  • Start in a seated position with your shoulders back and down.
  • As you look forward, slowly draw your head backward along a horizontal plane until your neck is over your spine.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and relax.
  • Repeat 15-20 times.

Cervical Traction

This move uses gravity to open up the cervical spine and reduce pressure in the joints.

  • Sit in a chair with your back supported on a chair
  • Place a rolled-up sheet or an exercise band around the back of your neck
  • Pull the ends of the sheet up to the forehead holding the ends close to your forehead
  • Now, bend your neck down as you gently pull on the ends of the sheet until you feel a gentle neck distraction.
  • Hold each position for 15-30 seconds, and repeat up to 5 times.

Cervical radiculopathy exercises are also helpful for counteracting posture and alignment issues that cause pain and limit your mobility. If you have unexplained or persistent neck and shoulder pain, physical therapy may provide much-needed relief. You can request an appointment online or find a physical therapy clinic near you.

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Medically reviewed by

Misty Seidenburg

Vice President of Clinical Programs

Dr. Misty Seidenburg has been a practicing physical therapist since 2006 after obtaining her Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree from Gannon University. Dr. Seidenburg completed an Orthopedic Residency in 2009 and subsequent Spine Fellowship in 2010 where she discovered a passion for educating clinicians. Since 2019, she has developed and refined several post-professional residency and fellowship programs and currently serves as the Vice President of Clinical Programs for Upstream Rehab Institute. She serves on several APTA committees to help advance the profession, is adjunct faculty at Messiah University, and is also a senior instructor and course developer for the Institute of Advanced Musculoskeletal Treatments with a special interest in exercise integration. Outside of work, she enjoys challenging herself with new adventures and is currently competing as an endurance athlete.

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