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Getting to the Root of Radiculopathy

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

I love a good vocabulary. I’ve always thought it’s fun to learn new words, but that fondness was put to the test when I was in physical therapy school. My anatomy and physiology class was brutal. There are thousands upon thousands of terms used to describe the human body and the myriad of conditions that affect it. Trying to memorize them all is impossible, so you have to use short cuts. As with many words, medical terms typically consist of a root word which is then added to various prefixes and suffixes to form a complete term. For example, if you take the root ost (meaning “bone”) and add it to the suffix oma (meaning “tumor”), you get osteoma (a bone tumor that is typically benign). Take the root cyto (meaning “cell”) and add the prefix aniso (meaning “unequal”), you have anisocytosis (a condition in which the blood cells are unequally sized).

The word radiculopathy comes from the Latin term radix (meaning “root”) and the Greek term pathos (meaning “suffering” or “disease”). Radiculopathy is a type of neuropathy (the root neuro meaning “nerve”) wherein the nerve is affected at its root along the spine and cannot function properly. It’s a blanket term for a number of conditions, ranging from the relatively harmless (such as sciatica and piriformis syndrome) to the more serious (such as cauda equina syndrome, paraplegia, and quadriplegia).

Radiculopathy is characterized by the compression and/or deterioration of a nerve as it exits the spine, resulting in numbness, weakness, tingling, and pain that radiates into the related extremities. Some patients also develop a hypersensitivity to touch in the affected area. Polyradiculopathy (the prefix poly meaning “many”) describes a state in which more than one nerve is compressed. This compression can come from a number of sources; herniated disks, bone spurs, tumors, infections, scoliosis, diabetes, inflammation, bad posture, spinal stenosis, genetic predisposition, overuse, age-related deterioration, and trauma can all result in radiculopathy symptoms. Radiculopathy is typically divided into three categories depending on the section of the spine involved – cervical (meaning “neck”) and lumbar (meaning “lower back”) radiculopathies are the most common, with thoracic (meaning “mid-back”) radiculopathy being more rare.

In order to successfully treat radiculopathy, you must get to the root of the problem. Unless you address the cause of the condition, the symptoms will continue to return. Therefore, step one in your treatment should include a visit to your physical therapist or doctor. They will perform tests (some may be as simple as a medical history and physical exam, others may include x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans) to determine the cause of your problem and then recommend an appropriate treatment program. While serious cases may need more involved treatment depending on the origin of the problem, minor cases of radiculopathy have a good outlook. They often can be effectively treated in a matter of weeks with rest, stretching, strengthening and stabilization exercises, traction, and anti-inflammatory medications if allowed by your doctor. Just don’t delay step one too long – because radiculopathy involves the compression of nerves, there is a danger of permanent damage if the condition remains untreated for an extended amount of time.

Because the causes are so varied and sometimes out of our control, we can’t always avoid radiculopathy, but there are some steps we can take to reduce our risk. Focus on the health of your back and neck. This means maintaining a healthy body weight and adopting proper posture to reduce strain on your spine, exercising to keep it strong, and avoiding activities that put excessive strain or risk of injury on your back. This includes everything from that casual contact football game with your buddies to riskier behaviors, such as riding in a car while not wearing a seat belt.

Although radiculopathy is a common problem, it doesn’t have to be a constant problem. Get to the root of your symptoms and see your physical therapist or doctor today.

Don’t let nerve pain hold you back. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Nerve Pain Assessment!