Q: Dear Doctor, I am writing to seek your guidance and expertise regarding my mother, who is currently 46 years old. Recently, she has been experiencing symptoms indicative of cervical radiculopathy, which has been causing her significant discomfort and distress. I would deeply appreciate any advice or recommendations you could provide on how best to manage her condition, including potential treatment options, lifestyle adjustments, or further diagnostic steps we should consider to ensure she receives the most effective care.
Cervical radiculopathy is a complex medical condition characterized by the compression or irritation of nerve roots within the cervical spine, which can lead to significant discomfort and functional impairment. This condition typically arises due to the encroachment of herniated disc material or arthritic bone spurs into the nerve space. These structural abnormalities can exert pressure on the nerve roots, resulting in a variety of symptoms such as neck pain, radiating pain into the arms, numbness, sensory deficits, and motor dysfunction affecting both the neck and upper extremities.

The etiology of cervical radiculopathy involves multiple pathologies that impact the nerve roots. Among the most common causes are herniated discs, which can bulge out and press against the nerves; foraminal narrowing, where the spaces through which nerves exit the spinal column become constricted; and degenerative changes such as osteoarthritis. These degenerative processes can lead to stenosis, or the narrowing of the intervertebral foramen – the small openings that allow nerve roots to pass from the spinal column to the rest of the body. This stenosis can compress the nerve roots, leading to the aforementioned symptoms.

In most cases, cervical radiculopathy manifests unilaterally, affecting one side of the body. However, in instances where severe bone spurs are present at a single spinal level, bilateral symptoms can occur, impacting both sides of the body due to nerve root compression on either side of the spine. When patients experience peripheral radiation of pain, muscle weakness, or a sensation akin to pins and needles, these symptoms can often be traced back to the specific nerve root that is affected.

Cervical radiculopathy is a broad disorder with several underlying mechanisms and can affect individuals across a wide age range. However, it is most commonly diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 40 and 50. The range of symptoms is diverse and can include arm pain that follows a dermatomal pattern—specific areas of the skin supplied by particular nerve roots – along with neck pain, paresthesia (abnormal sensations like tingling or prickling), muscle weakness in a myotomal pattern (specific muscles controlled by certain nerve roots), impaired reflexes, headaches, scapular pain, and both sensory and motor dysfunction in the upper extremities and neck. It is crucial to note that the absence of radiating pain does not rule out nerve root compression, as significant sensory and motor dysfunction can occur without major pain symptoms.

The diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy generally involves a combination of imaging and electrophysiological studies. Radiographs (X-rays) are used to visualize the bony structures of the spine, while MRI scans provide detailed images of the soft tissues, including the intervertebral discs and nerve roots. Electrophysiological tests, such as electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies, are employed to assess the electrical activity of muscles and the speed of nerve signals, helping to pinpoint the exact location and cause of nerve root compression.

Effective treatment for cervical radiculopathy often includes a multifaceted approach, with physical therapy playing a key role. Physical therapy interventions can be categorized as follows:

Education and Advice: Educating the patient about their condition, the underlying causes of their symptoms, and the rationale behind the treatment plan is vital for ensuring patient cooperation and adherence to rehabilitation efforts.

Manual Therapy: Techniques such as Passive Accessory Intervertebral Movements (PAIVMs), Passive Physiological Intervertebral Movements (PPIVMs), Natural Apophyseal Glides (NAGs), and Sustained Natural Apophyseal Glides (SNAGs) are employed to alleviate symptoms by improving joint mobility and reducing nerve root compression.

Exercise Therapy: This includes exercises designed to promote Active Range of Motion (AROM), as well as stretching and strengthening exercises aimed at enhancing flexibility and muscle strength to support the spine and alleviate pressure on the nerve roots.

Postural Re-education: Teaching patients proper posture can help reduce strain on the cervical spine and prevent further nerve root irritation.

Patient education is a cornerstone of effective treatment for cervical radiculopathy. When patients have a clear understanding of their condition and the reasons behind their neck and arm pain, they are more likely to adhere to the recommended rehabilitation plan. Compliance with physical therapy is crucial for improving outcomes and preventing the recurrence of symptoms. By combining education, manual therapy, exercise, and postural re-education, healthcare providers aim to relieve symptoms, improve function, and enhance the quality of life for individuals suffering from cervical radiculopathy.