What Is Radiculopathy?

Nov 12, 2021

Back pain can be frustrating for a variety of reasons, including that there are so many things that can cause it to occur. We all experience occasional back pain from simply sleeping in an odd position or overexerting ourselves one day, but other types of back pain can be debilitating and long-lasting. You may visit an orthopedic doctor in Marietta expecting one cause of your back pain and be surprised to hear it is something called radiculopathy. If you aren’t familiar with this diagnosis, we’ve compiled a guide to what it is and how to treat it.


To understand radiculopathy, you need to first understand how the spine is structured. The spinal cord sits inside a stacked structure, made up of 33 bones called vertebrae. These bones allow you to move, bend, twist, and stay upright through the help of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Additionally, nerves extend out from the spine to other areas of the body, allowing for communication between your internal systems.

The spine curves in an S-like shape, which allows for proper shock absorption, balance, and range of motion. This is helped by the small, soft, gel-like discs that cushion the vertebrae. If these discs are damaged, it can cause compression and irritation of the surrounding nerve roots, leading to pain in the corresponding part of your body. This pain is known as radiculopathy.

Radiculopathy can occur at any point in the spine, with symptoms differing based on the location. Cervical radiculopathy affects the neck and upper back, usually causing pain and weakness in the shoulders and arms. Thoracic radiculopathy will impact the chest and torso, though this is the least common form. Finally, lumbar radiculopathy is also known as sciatica and affects the lower back and legs.

Causes and Risk Factors

In general, radiculopathy results from shifting tissues and structures in the spine, leading to additional pressure placed on the nerve roots, and ultimately nerve damage or irritation. These shifts can occur for a wide range of reasons.

One of the most common is a herniated disc, in which the discs that sit between the bones in the spine are moved or ruptured, invading the surrounding area and crowding the nerves, ultimately compressing them. Herniated discs can occur in response to a sudden trauma like a car accident or as a result of wear and tear over time. Bone spurs are another common cause, in which additional bone growth occurs in the spine in response to inflammation, osteoarthritis, trauma, or a degenerative condition.

While anyone can suffer from radiculopathy, certain groups of people are at a higher risk, including senior citizens, those who perform manual labor often, and people with a family history of degenerative bone conditions. Lifestyle factors like being overweight or having poor posture can also increase the risk of developing radiculopathy.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Anytime you visit an orthopedic doctor in Marietta with back pain, they will go through a physical examination and discussion of your symptoms to begin identifying the cause of your pain. Radiculopathy can usually be determined from a combination of these exams and diagnostic imaging like an MRI or CT scan. This can help the doctor understand where you have suffered an injury or spinal condition to direct your treatment to the appropriate area.

In most cases, radiculopathy can be treated without surgical intervention. Doctors may suggest you manage immediate pain through over-the-counter medications or even steroid injections, but the goal will be to understand the cause of your pain and return the spine to health in that area.

Physical therapy and chiropractic adjustments are commonly used to help the spine return to normal functioning and avoid further irritating any nerves. Once the spine is better aligned, many symptoms will subside, but treatment can continue. Addressing any lifestyle factors like posture may become important to prevent future injury, and a physical therapist can help strengthen your muscles to better support your spine.

If you are experiencing even mild back pain, it is important to seek the care of an orthopedic doctor. Without treatment, these problems can worsen over time and lead to permanent nerve damage. The doctors at AICA Marietta are skilled at uncovering the root cause of your pain and using this to guide them in creating customized care plans for each patient. Along with our team of multidisciplinary specialists, the team at AICA Marietta will create a path to recovery and a pain-free life for you.