What is Radiculopathy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

“Radiculopathy” is a term used to describe conditions which have caused damage to the nerve roots which connect the spine to the rest of the nervous system. A well known form of radiculopathy is sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy. People with radiculopathy can experience a range of symptoms, and the condition can be both difficult and frustrating to treat. In some cases, a patient may work with several health care providers to get the best treatment possible and to ensure that all treatment options are considered.

The spinal nerves act as messengers for the central nervous system.
The spinal nerves act as messengers for the central nervous system.

The spinal nerve roots are bundles of nerves which send messages to and from the central nervous system. The sensory nerves direct signals into the central nervous system, while motor nerves carry messages from the central nervous system. These nerves meet in small bundles at the spine; the bundles look like roots, which explains their name. “Radiculopathy” comes from the Latin word for root, radix, combined with the Greek suffix -pathy meaning “disease or suffering.”

Sciatica is a form of radiculopathy that causes lower back pain.
Sciatica is a form of radiculopathy that causes lower back pain.

There are a wide range of causes for radiculopathy. People who are elderly or immunocompromised are often at risk, as their spinal nerves can be more susceptible to damage. The condition can also be caused by diseases or bacterial infections, and injuries to the spine, especially injuries which compress the vertebrae. Radiculopathy is characterized by pain, numbness, and weakness which radiates from the spine. In some cases, the nervous system also gets confused, and starts sending signals without any stimulus.

A form of radiculopathy, sciatica can cause pain and numbness down the leg.
A form of radiculopathy, sciatica can cause pain and numbness down the leg.

When radiculopathy is diagnosed, doctors usually determine whether it is cervical, located in the neck, thoaracic, located in the middle back, or lumbar, located in the lower back. Some doctors also pinpoint specific vertebrae, which is why someone could be said to have “C7 radiculopathy.” The doctor also typically tries to identify the cause, as the course of treatment varies, depending on what brought the condition on in the first place. For example, a bacterial infection might be treated with antibiotics, while severe trauma might require surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves. Sometimes, the cause cannot be identified, in which case the patient's condition is termed idiopathic radiculopathy.

Elderly individuals may be more at risk for radiculopathy.
Elderly individuals may be more at risk for radiculopathy.

Rest, gentle exercise, and medications are all used to treat radiculopathy. Physical therapy is often an important part of treatment, along with supporting devices and measures which are designed to reduce stress and strain on the spine. In some cases, surgery may be required to address the cause or alleviate the pain; radiculopathy can be excruciating for the patient, requiring an assortment of measures to make his or her life bearable.

Radiculopathy may occur in the neck.
Radiculopathy may occur in the neck.
Sciatica is also known as lumbar radiculopathy.
Sciatica is also known as lumbar radiculopathy.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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