Can A Pinched Nerve Cause Ringing In The Ears?
Tinnitus or that irritating ringing in your ears isn't the problem in itself but the symptom of a deeper issue.
While the major causes of tinnitus are known, other underlying health conditions can trigger ringing in your ear. Still, because these health conditions do not directly cause tinnitus, they are often neglected.
Pinched nerves are one of such health conditions that can subtly cause tinnitus.
In this post, we will be answering the question of if a pinched nerve can cause ringing in the ear. But before we do that, let us first get to know what a pinched nerve is, what causes it, and how to prevent it.
What is a Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve, referred to as radiculopathy, happens when too much pressure is applied to one or more nerves in the body. This pressure disrupts the normal function of the nerve(s). The nerve’s pressure can be from muscles, cartilage, tendons, or bones surrounding the nerve.
With the disruption of the nerve’s function, a person will experience pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, or difficulty controlling specific muscles.
A pinched nerve is often at or near the root of the nerve, which is shortly outside the spinal cord.
Even though the pressure location is around the spinal cord, the pain is not felt at the exact location where the pressure is applied; instead, the pain will radiate to the body’s various parts that the pinched nerve serves.
For instance, a pinched nerve root in the lower back can cause pain and weakness in the foot, while a pinched nerve in the neck can cause pain and weaken the forearm.
Likewise, a pinched nerve in the wrist can cause numbness and pain in the hand and fingers. If more than one nerve is pinched at a time, the condition is referred to as Polyradiculopathy.
A pinched nerve can occur at several sites in your body.
A herniated disk in your lower spine, for example, may put pressure on a nerve root, causing pain that radiates down the back of your leg. Likewise, a pinched nerve in your wrist can lead to pain and numbness in your hand and fingers (carpal tunnel syndrome).
As stated earlier, when a nerve is pinched, the effects are not felt at the pinch’s location. Instead, it is felt in the parts of the body where the nerve services.
The following are symptoms of a pinched nerve.
1.Decreased Sensation or Numbness
The numbness and decrease in sensation are often felt in the body supplied by the affected nerve. Numbness is usually a sign that the pinched nerve’s pressure is causing an insufficient flow of blood to the nerve.
The numbness will most likely not go away until the pressure that is blocking the blood flow is relieved.
2. Tingling and Paresthesia
Paresthesia has to do with the feeling of a pin and needle sensation. This symptom is experienced if a sensory nerve is being compressed.
Because the sensory nerve is responsible for feeling, compression on a sensory nerve creates a tingling sensation.
3. Sharp Burning or Aching Pain
In this case, the pain you feel may radiate outward. This is often a sign that the nerve is inflamed or something near it is inflamed and pressing on it.
The sharp pain is felt most times at the nerve ending of the affected nerve in your hand or leg.
4. Weakness of the Muscles in a Part of the Body
Muscle weakness occurs when a motor nerve responsible for transmitting messages from the vein to the muscle gets pinched. The weakness is a sign that the muscle connected to the pinched nerve is not being told how it should function.
5. Feeling that Your Foot or Hand has Fallen Asleep
You can temporarily compress your nerves with a poor posture. This usually happens if you sit on your leg or awkwardly rest on your arm. It often goes away when the pressure from your weight is removed.
If, however, your hands and legs fall asleep without any known cause, you will need the help of a doctor to identify the cause of the compression.
It is important to note that most of the symptoms of a pinched nerve can also be experienced if you have other medical conditions like multiple sclerosis, stroke, seizures, and heart attack.
So you should visit your doctor when you feel any of these symptoms out of the blues, especially if the symptoms are associated with other problems like difficulty in breathing and trouble with coordination.
Causes of Pinched Nerves
As you already know, a pinched nerve occurs when a nerve is compressed or too much pressure is placed on it.
Let's further examine the causes of pinched nerves.
A herniated disc, which is also known as a slipped disc, prolapsed disc, or bulging disc, is an injury to the connective and cushioning tissue between vertebrae caused by trauma or excessive strain to the spine.
A spinal disc contains a soft, jellylike center encased in a tough, rubbery exterior. Some of the nucleus bulges or pushes out through a tear in the rubbery exterior (annulus) herniated disc occurs.
When you twist left or right or bend your neck backward and forward, the pressure is placed on the disc and vertebrae.
The disc acts as a shock absorber to absorb the pressure from the vertebrae. If the disc’s pressure is too much, the disc can bulge towards the nerve root and spinal cord. This bulging can irritate or place pressure on the nerve.
A herniated disc can cause intense pain, especially if the tear in the annulus is terrible to the extent that part of the nucleus is squeezed out of the center of the disc.
If the tear in the annulus is close to the spinal canal, the nucleus pulposus can press against the spinal nerves; this pressure on the nerve can cause numbness, pain, and weakness along the nerve.
Also, the ruptured disc’s chemicals can irritate the nerve root, thereby leading to excruciating pain.
Asides from being caused by excess pressure, a herniated disc can also occur if a disc has been weakened by a degenerative process caused by age or degenerative disc disease.
2. Overuse of Body Parts
While your body parts are designed to always function, most of them can malfunction if they are overused. Overuse of body parts like the hand can cause a pinched nerve.
People who engage in hobbies or occupational activities that require repetitive or continuous wrist, hand, or shoulder movements such as assembly line work and continuous typing are susceptible to having pinched nerves.
An example of how overuse can cause pinched nerves is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, caused by the wrist’s regular extending and flexing.
This occurs when the median nerve traveling through the carpal tunnel is compressed due to the tunnel’s size.
Obesity occurs when a person's Body Mass Index (BMI) is 30 or higher. Obesity can lead to various health complications like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and back pain.
Obesity can also increase the tendency to have pinched nerves.
The excess body weight can cause the discs and vertebrae to press on the nerves in the spine.
Obesity can also cause spinal discs to degenerate, making a person prone to having herniated discs, which is a major cause of pinched nerves.
4. Bone Spurs
Bones spurs, also known as osteophytes, are smooth, hard bumps of extra bones that form on bones’ ends after a joint or tendon is injured.
They often form in the joints of different body parts like the neck, spine, shoulders, hips, hands, knees, and heels. The formation of bone spurs is the body's way of fixing a damaged bone by adding bone to the injured area.
Bone spurs can be caused by overuse, obesity, degenerative joint disease, lupus, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Even though most bone spurs do not cause any serious health problems, they can affect nerves.
If the bone spur gets big, it may begin to irritate, rub, or press on the nerve roots close to it. When this happens, symptoms similar to that of a herniated disc such as numbness and muscle weakness will be experienced.
5. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the causes of pinched nerves. One of the significant symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is the swelling of joints.
When a joint swells, nerves around it can get pinched, especially if the swollen nerve begins to press on the nerve. The inflammation of the swollen joint can also irritate nerves around it.
Once the nerves are affected, they begin to send a sensation of numbness, tingling, and pain to the brain, and these feelings will be felt in the different parts of the body where the affected nerves serve.
Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause the spine’s joints to deteriorate; this deterioration can lead to the spinal cord’s pinching or compression and the spinal nerve root.
Diabetes can cause damage to the nerves, which is known as diabetic neuropathy. This is the most common complication of diabetes, and it can be severe or mild. The increased level of blood glucose does damage the nerves for a long period.
Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy include pain, numbness, burning sensation, loss of sensation in the lower legs, and tingling of the feet and lower legs.
7. Other Causes
Asides from the six causes of pinched nerves we have examined above, other factors can increase your risk of experiencing a pinched nerve. Below are some other risk factors.
Thyroid disease makes a person susceptible to having carpal tunnel syndrome.
Women are more prone to having carpal tunnel syndrome than men. One of the reasons for this is that women's carpal tunnels are smaller.
The increase in body weight and water during pregnancy can have the same effect that obesity has on the spine. The excess weight can put pressure on the spine and cause compression of nerves. Also, the weight gain can cause nerve pathways to swell and press on the nerves.
Prolonged bed rest
Being confined to the bed for a long time can cause nerves to compress, especially if the lying posture is bad.
Can Pinched Nerves Cause Ringing in the Ear?
Pinched nerves that last for only a short time usually do not cause any permanent damage. In most cases, when the pressure is relieved, nerve function returns to normal.
If, however, the pressure on the nerve is for a long time, permanent damage may be done, and you will experience excruciating pain.
Whether or not a pinched nerve is for a short or long time can affect the ear’s function.
While there is no certainty about whether or not a pinched nerve can directly cause tinnitus, it is evident that a pinched nerve can affect the ear in certain ways.
In most cases, tinnitus is a side effect of the health condition that caused the pinched nerve.
The human cervical spine is grouped into two; the upper part consists of the first and second vertebra and occiput, and the lower part, which contains vertebrae 3 to 7.
Once there is an abnormality in the cervical spine, especially the upper part, the arteries and nerves connected to the ear can be affected.
For instance, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, there is every tendency that you will suffer tinnitus or even experience hearing loss.
Asides from the fact that rheumatoid arthritis can affect the tiny bones, cartilage, and joints in the ear, research has also shown that the hearing loss experienced by arthritis patients can be linked with the attacks on the joints and tissues.
This is very common for people with autoimmune forms of arthritis.
Since rheumatoid arthritis is a form of autoimmune disease, it increases your susceptibility to autoimmune inner ear disease. This makes your immune system attack the inner ear structures like the cochlea, which results in dizziness and ringing in the ear (tinnitus).
Asides from rheumatoid arthritis, other causes of pinched nerves like obesity and diabetes can affect hearing.
Let's briefly examine each.
- Obesity: Excess fat caused by obesity doesn't only put pressure on the spine and nerves; they also strain the capillaries’ walls. This makes the capillaries to struggle with effectively transporting oxygen to the hair cells. The hair cells play a very vital role in hearing. If the hair cells in the inner ear are unable to get enough oxygen, they can get damaged, and this can cause permanent tinnitus or hearing loss.
- Diabetes: Research has shown that people with diabetes are more than twice likely to develop hearing loss than people without diabetes. This hearing loss often occurs when the nerves and blood vessels in the inner ear are damaged.
When the blood vessels get damaged, the cochlea’s hair cells may lose their ability to pick up sound, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss or tinnitus.
While most of these diseases can affect hearing, they are not the only reasons you experience tinnitus. Ototoxic drugs are the second culprits. These are drugs that are used to treat certain health conditions but can cause or worsen tinnitus.
Some drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen are prescribed to relieve pain, and treatment of some of the health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can also cause tinnitus.
If you experience ringing in your ear when taking any of the prescribed medications, inform your doctor. In most cases, an alternative drug with lesser side effects will be prescribed.
Having understood the link between a pinched nerve and ringing in the ear, let's take a look at ways you can treat pinched nerves.
Pinched Nerves Treatment
For some type of pinched nerves, you may have to see a professional. However, you can relieve the pain at home by following the remedies examined below.
The good thing about these remedies is that you can combine one or more at a time. You can choose a remedy based on your doctor's recommendation or based on your preference.
1. Standing Workstations
Standing workstations are becoming quite popular, and that's for a good reason. Standing throughout the day is vital for treating and preventing a pinched nerve.
Also, if you have or want to avoid a pinched nerve and you work long hours, speak with HR about changing your desk, so it allows you to stand while you work. If you are unable to get a standing workstation, then try to increase your mobility every hour.
You can also take advantage of an hourly stretching program or roller balls to get tight muscles, especially if you are on the keyboard consistently.
Keep in mind that supports, and wrist braces are not recommended for treatment at the early stages.
2. Use Heat
Heat can help you relax your muscles, which are tight around pinched nerves. Heat increases blood flow as well, and that helps the healing process. You can use heating pads, which can be found in various sizes at most drug stores.
Simply hold heat tightly and directly on the pinched nerve for at least 10-15 minutes per time.
3. Change Posture
You may have to change how you sit or stand to relieve pinched nerve pain. Choose a position that gives you more relief and stay in that position for as long as you can.
It helps to reduce inflammation and swelling. Put a towel on an ice pack, wrap it around, and then place it right on the pinched nerve for between 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Raise your Legs
If you have a pinched nerve in your lower back, you could try raising your legs and placing them at a 90-degree bend in both your knees and hips.
6. Take Time Off
Regardless of where you have a pinched nerve, it's recommended that you have a long rest and stay clear of activities that may cause you pain, like texting, golfing, and tennis.
Take extensive rest periods until the symptoms of the pinched nerve are resolved. However, whenever you start to move again, pay close attention to how you feel. And stop whatever activity you're doing if you begin to feel the symptoms again.
In case you have a carpal tunnel (pinched nerve in your wrist), you can use a splint to protect your wrist and rest your arm.
This is most helpful at night, so you don't bend your hand in a bad position while asleep.
8. Gentle Stretch
A gentle stretch can help ease the nerves’ pressure and is your symptoms but don't get too deep into the stretch. If you start to feel discomfort or pain, reduce the stretch. Keep in mind that even the littlest of movements are useful.
9. Get an Over-The-Counter Pain Relief
You can use OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin IB Advil or ibuprofen to relieve pain. Take a look at instructions on the medication and follow them. But ensure that you visit the doctor before you take any new drugs.
When Should You See a Doctor?
Once you notice that your pain keeps returning and is constant and severe, you should visit the doctor. Most times, the doctor will ask you many questions and run some tests to determine the cause of the pinched nerve.
If the numbness, tingling, and pain don't stop, you must see the doctor. The doctor will most likely prescribe a better anti-inflammatory medication or carry-out additional tests like an x-ray to know where the pinched nerve is exactly. Your doctor can also prescribe physical therapies, which can help to resolve symptoms.
That said, you must cease using any form of home treatments if they made the symptoms worse or hurt you. If you have tingling or numbness that isn't going away or worsening, reach out to an orthopedic physical therapist or your physician.
Here are the symptoms you should take note of that reveal when you need to see the doctor.
- When the pinched nerve prevents you from grasping objects.
- If your home treatments don't work or are worsening the condition. Your doctor would most likely prescribe physical therapy painkillers or surgery to help eliminate the symptoms.
- If the pinched is affecting your bladder or bowel
Treatment for tinnitus associated with pinched nerves or any diseases related to it cannot be done in isolation. This means that the underlying cause of the tinnitus (in this case, the disease) has to be treated to get relief from the tinnitus.
In cases where medical help is delayed, irreversible damage can be done to the ear, leading to permanent tinnitus or hearing loss.
Have you experienced tinnitus alongside a pinched nerve? What caused it, and how did you treat it?
Drew Sutton M.D.
Drew Sutton, MD is a board-certified otolaryngologist. He has extensive experience and training in sinus and respiratory diseases, ear and skull base surgery, and pulmonary disorders. He has served as a Clinical Instructor at Grady Hospital Emory University for more than 12 years.