Diagnosing and Treating Radiculopathy
Most people with
radiculopathy will seek medical attention from a primary care physician first for the
pain. The doctor will begin with a thorough history of the patient and
physical exam. Once the doctor identifies the exact location of the symptoms,
he or she can determine which nerves are responsible for the condition.
Tests ordered may include:
X-ray: an X-ray can show the presence and cause of trauma, including herniated
discs, osteoarthritis, and other causes.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio-frequency waves to create an image
of the spine, and can reveal fine details of the spine, including tumors,
nerves, and any damage to the spine. An MRI scan can show details in the
spine that can’t normally be seen on an x-ray. Sometimes a contrast
agent is injected into a vein in the hand or arm during the test, which
highlights certain tissues and structures to make details even clearer.
In cases of radiculopathy, the affected nerves will be revealed.
Computerized tomography (CT) is a noninvasive procedure that uses x-rays to produce a three-dimensional
image of the spine. A CT shows more detail than an X-ray, and is sometimes
used in addition to an MRI to reveal compression to the nerves.
Many cases of radiculopathy can be treated successfully with conservative
measures. These include the use of over-the-counter pain relievers and
anti-inflammatories such as acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, as well as steroid
injections, administered in a doctor’s office. In 95% of cases,
these simple treatments are effective. But for the remaining 5%, the excruciating
pain caused by compressed nerves and nerve damage requires more aggressive
Surgery: If the symptoms of the compressed nerves have not improved with conservative
measures, then surgery may be the most effective option. With surgery,
the herniated disc or damaged portion of the spine is operated on to relieve
the pressure on the affected nerves. (See
Surgery for Radiculopathy.)
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