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Is that a pinched nerve or pulled muscle? Here's how to tell

Is that a pinched nerve or pulled muscle? Here's how to tell
3 minutes, 24 seconds

Pinched nerves and pulled muscles feel similar but are very different conditions. If you have a pain in your neck or back, you might think that you pinched a nerve when you in fact pulled a muscle or vice versa. So how do you tell? Well, we’ll answer that question in this article. Let’s break down the difference between pinched nerves and pulled muscles and explain how to tell which one is causing you pain.

What is a pinched nerve?

A pinched nerve is an injury that occurs when a nerve is compressed by a bone or soft tissue. Symptoms can range from a light tingling or numbness in the affected area to a burning sensation that worsens with movement. It can cause muscle weakness and, in extreme cases, the inability to use particular muscles. The most common cause of a pinched nerve is a muscle spasm that presses up against the nerve. They can also be caused by arthritis, damaged joints in the spine, or even tumors. Pinched nerves are most frequently found in the neck or back (upper and lower) but can also happen in the upper extremities (arms, hands, elbow, wrist).

What is a pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle, or muscle strain, occurs when one of your muscles is stretched too far and tears away from its attachment to your bone. In some cases, the muscle or ligament attaching it to the bone tears entirely. It causes pain, tenderness and swelling in the affected area but can also cause limited mobility in some people. Muscle strains can happen in any part of your body but are most common in the lower back, legs, neck and shoulders. They are common, too, with one study showing that 43% of workers seek medical attention for a muscle strain at some point during their career.

Pinched nerves vs. pulled muscles: What’s the difference?

The only similarity between these two conditions is that they both cause pain. They both cause pain; they differ in how they cause pain. Pinched nerves hurt because a bone or soft tissue is pressed up against your nerve, sending pain signals throughout your body. Pulled muscles hurt because they tear the small blood vessels in your soft tissue, releasing blood that irritates your nerve endings. In some cases, a pulled muscle can lead to a pinched nerve if the muscle swells enough and presses up against a nerve ending.

How to tell if you have a pinched nerve or a pulled muscle

If you’re feeling pain and wondering whether you pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve, pay close attention to your symptoms. Here are the main differences:

  • Pinched nerves tingle (think “pins and needles”) while pulled muscles feel tighter and sore to the touch.
  • Pinched nerve pain radiates to other areas around the affected nerve while pulled muscle pain typically stays localized in the area around the muscle.
  • Pulled muscles swell while pinched nerves do not.
  • Pulled muscles make your limb feel stiff and weak almost immediately after the injury while pinched nerves create sudden bouts of weakness.

One effective way to tell if you have a pinched nerve or pulled muscle is to consult a medical professional. They’ll assess your symptoms to determine which condition is affecting you and build a treatment plan to help you recover.

Does physical therapy work for both of these conditions?

Physical therapy can be an effective treatment for both pinched nerves and pulled muscles. For a pinched nerve, your physical therapist will coach you through exercises that help take pressure off the nerve so it hurts less. For a muscle strain, your specialist will teach you exercises that help you to rebuild your muscles and prevent future injuries. In both cases, your specialist may apply manual therapy techniques to physically manipulate your joints and muscles to reduce pain.

Alliance PTP is ready to help you find top-notch PT for pinched nerves or pulled muscles

At Alliance Physical Therapy Partners, we proudly bring together physical therapy practices across the country to help people get the high-quality treatment they need. Want to see a physical therapist in person? We can put you in touch with an Alliance PTP partner that’s close to you and that can treat your pinched nerve or pulled muscle. Not keen on in-person PT sessions or not close to an Alliance PTP partner? No worries. We also offer effective and affordable virtual physical therapy through our Agile Virtual Physical Therapy platform.  Contact our team today so we can help you find the most effective physical therapy services for your injury or condition.

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