What It Means When Your Neck Pain Shoots Down Your Arm

Pain that's isolated to one part of the body is bad enough, but shooting pain that travels from one area to another is a whole other kind of misery. So why do we experience shooting pain? In some cases, it may be the result of taking certain medications, an injury, a vitamin deficiency, or even certain health conditions such as shingles, fibromyalgia, stroke, or diabetes (via eMedicineHealth).

One type of shooting pain that can be experienced by both young people and older adults alike is shooting pain that makes its way from the neck all the way down the arm. Medically referred to as cervical radiculopathy, most people know it by another name: a pinched nerve.

The pain of a pinched nerve may be experienced differently from one person to the next. For some, it may feel more like a sharp pain, while another person may describe it as more of a burning sensation (via University of Virginia School of Medicine). Generally speaking, however, symptoms of cervical radiculopathy often include loss of sensation, tingling in the hands or fingers, or weakness in the neck, shoulder, or hand muscles.

You may have injured yourself

For younger individuals, an injury-related herniated disk is usually to blame for a pinched nerve in the neck. The shooting pain you feel is a result of the swollen disk pressing upon a nerve in the neck that extends out from the spinal cord (via University of Virginia School of Medicine). For this reason, the pain may travel from the neck and throughout the arm down to the hand.

For older adults, however, shooting pain in the neck is more often related to aging rather than injury. As we grow older, our spinal disks become more brittle and start to bulge. To compensate for these changes, the body creates more bone around the disk to make it more stable. However, this added bone formation takes up more space along the spinal column and may subsequently compress the surrounding nerves. While this is a typical part of the aging process, some individuals experience pain as a result of these spinal changes, while others do not. However, the reason for this is not entirely understood.

When a pinched nerve may be an emergency

The good news is that a trip to the doctor isn't always required to treat a pinched nerve in the neck. Instead, getting adequate rest, maintaining proper posture, and engaging in some light stretching of the neck and shoulder blades may be enough to help alleviate symptoms (via Vascular and Interventional Specialists of Prescott).

However, a pinched nerve that sticks around for more than a few days should be looked at by a neck doctor. Depending on the severity of the case, a physician may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications or recommend physical therapy. In the event of ongoing pain, a herniated disk may need to be surgically removed.

Alternatively, there are some cases in which a pinched nerve may warrant immediate emergency medical attention. This includes the presence of additional symptoms such as fever, stiffness in the neck, headache, or swollen neck glands, which could indicate potential infection. You should also seek emergency services if shooting neck pain is accompanied by chest pain, which may be a sign of heart attack. Lastly, a patient who experiences incontinence or hand muscles that feel weak or numb may be experiencing spinal cord or spinal nerve compression and should also seek immediate medical care.