Neuropathy vs. Radiculopathy: What is the Difference?
The terms neuropathy and radiculopathy are seldom used interchangeably because of their similar signs and symptoms – even by expert medical health professionals such as neurosurgeons and spine surgeons. However, differences between the two become evident when we put neuropathy vs. radiculopathy and delve into their intricacies.
Although both conditions refer to nerve damage, the primary difference arises in the location of the problem. Damage near or at the nerve’s root along the spine is known as radiculopathy, whereas damage to nerves outside the spinal cord is termed neuropathy.
Let us delve deeper into these conditions to clear the fog surrounding these two and discover what radiculopathy and neuropathy are their causes, symptoms, and differences.
What is Radiculopathy?
The human spine comprises 33 bones forming the vertebrae, held in place through an intricate network of tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Intervertebral discs are present between each vertebra, which cushion the bones and prevent them from rubbing with each other.
Damage to these intervertebral cushioning discs can cause compression to nearby nerves branching out of the spinal discs. This pinching or compression of spinal nerve roots is referred to as radiculopathy. Since radiculopathy comes under the broader umbrella of neuropathy, the former is also known as “radicular neuropathy.”
Compression of the spinal nerve roots can cause tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness along the nerve’s course or other parts of the body, depending upon the nerve root’s location. Although radiculopathy can occur anywhere in the spine, it is most common in the neck – known as cervical radiculopathy – and lower back – known as lumbar radiculopathy. It is less common in the middle part of the spin, known as thoracic radiculopathy.
Types of Radiculopathy
There are three kinds of radiculopathy, depending on the location of the spinal nerve damage.
Lumbar radiculopathy occurs due to the inflammation or compression of nerves in the lower sections of the spine. In this case, pain originates in the back of the thigh and spreads to the foot and calf – a condition also known as sciatica.
One of the most typically compressed nerves in the lower back is the S1 nerve; neuropathy of the S1 nerve can result in a loss of feet function.
Thoracic radiculopathy refers to the compression of nerves in the upper areas of the spine or the upper back. Thoracic radiculopathy is relatively less common.
Cervical radiculopathy results from the compression of nerve roots in the neck. Cervical nerves regulate the sensations in the hands and arms.
Radiculopathy generally occurs from the pinching or compression of nerve roots in the spine. It may be a result of aging, which causes the spinal discs to bulge and degenerate. It is also possible for the body to produce bone spurs that strengthen the spinal discs, causing narrowing of the nerve root exit and resulting in a pinched nerve.
Some common causes of radiculopathy include the following:
- Physical compression caused by the building or herniation of the disc
- Thickening of ligaments surrounding the nerves
- Bone spurs
All of the above-mentioned conditions can decrease the spinal canal space, compressing the exiting nerve. Herniated discs and inflammation from trauma, such as that suffered in a personal injury or car accident, are by far the most common causes of radiculopathy.
Treatment of Radiculopathy
Treatment of radiculopathy greatly depends upon its severity and how much it hampers your daily life functioning. In acute cases, symptoms of radiculopathy may subside with little or no treatment.
However, moderate to severe cases may require intensive medical treatment by a health professional. Lasting relief can be obtained through surgery, but that is typically the last resort and reserved for the most serious cases where non-surgical treatments do not offer relief.
Some other common non-surgical treatments may include the following:
- Steroid injections
- Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Chiropractic care
- Physical therapy
Neuropathy is an umbrella term that encapsulates multiple nervous system disorders. It also occurs due to nerve damage, similar to radiculopathy.
The primary difference between neuropathy and radiculopathy is that the former deals with damage to nerves outside the spinal cord, whereas the latter covers damage to nerves stemming from inside the spinal cord.
Types of Neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy refers to nerve damage outside the spinal cord and brain. There are more than a hundred peripheral neuropathy types, but the most common kinds include the following:
- Motor Neuropathy – refers to damage to nerves regulating muscles and controlling movement.
- Sensory neuropathy – refers to damage to nerves controlling the senses.
- Autonomic Nerve Neuropathy – refers to damage to the nerves controlling unconscious functions, such as heartbeat and breathing.
Cranial neuropathy results from damage to one or more of the twelve cranial nerves. This condition may affect hearing or vision.
Diabetic neuropathy refers to nerve damage caused by diabetes and typically affects the legs or feet.
Autonomic neuropathy results from damage to the nerves in the involuntary nervous system responsible for controlling several organs.
Focal neuropathy is a condition caused by damage limited to a single nerve, one area of the body, or a group of nerves.
There are several causes of neuropathy, including exposure to particular drugs, hereditary disorders, trauma (such as that after a fall, motor vehicle accident, or any other traumatic event), alcohol abuse, or nutritional deficiencies.
Symptoms of Neuropathy
Neuropathy encompasses a variety of nerve disorders; thus, the symptoms vary depending on your condition. Peripheral neuropathy symptoms overlap with those of radiculopathy, especially those concerning numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness. Some other common signs and symptoms of neuropathy may include the following:
- Difficulties swallowing or eating
- Changes in nails, skin, or hair
- Unstable or uncontrollable blood pressure
- Emotional disturbances
- Perspiration difficulties
- Problems sleeping
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Treatment of Neuropathy
Unlike radiculopathy, surgery is unsuitable for neuropathy patients. This condition makes accurate diagnosis imperative, as the treatment depends upon the causes of your particular situation.
In case of a nutritional deficiency or health condition, medical health professionals manage them first in hopes of treating neuropathy. It is common for neuropathy patients to feel relief after addressing the root cause of the problem.
Some common non-surgical treatments for neuropathy include the following:
- Physical therapy
- Prescription or over-the-counter pain medications
- Chiropractic care
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