If there is damage in the spine, pressure may develop around a nerve as it emerges from the spine. Nerve pressure in the neck causes symptoms in the arm, nerve pressure in the low back area causes symptoms in the leg, described as sciatica. This may initially cause pain, but if pressure is maintained it may cause the nerve to function less well, leading to pins and needles/tingling, and with even more pressure there may be numbness (loss of sensation) and weakness (because the nerves cannot tell the affected muscles to contract).
If a nerve is mechanically irritated, the resulting inflammation causes the nerve to swell, increasing the nerve pressure further. The pain messages resulting from the nerve irritation will also cause muscle spasm to develop in the area (read more on how the brain responds). Thus initially the aim of osteopathic treatment is to help relax the muscles in the back, and by gentle movements within the pain free range reduce the swelling and congestion around the nerve.
The term ‘trapped nerve’ implies that the nerve can be untrapped, and some have suggested that this can be done by forceful manipulation. In our experience at Lincoln osteopaths direct manipulation can be potentially aggravating and therefore, particularly in the early phase of treatment, more gentle techniques are used.
Pain referred to a limb without nerve irritation/trapped nerve
There are many other reasons why pain may be experienced in an arm or leg that is not related to nerve irritation but still caused by a problem in the neck or back, and in these instances more direct manipulative techniques are appropriate and can be very helpful.
Life style factors may be important
When pain has developed in the spine and a limb, the osteopath will seek to wherever possible understand why this has occurred, and endeavoured to help the sufferer to minimise the various stresses which may have brought them to this point. These may be the result of various lifestyle factors including working postures and activities, level of fitness, and level of mental and emotional tension.