Nerves are specialised cells in the body that have a function similar to electricity wires. They connect the brain to the tissues and other structures in your body, delivering messages like a communication system. And they belong to network known as the nervous system.
If you remember back to the days when we used to telephone via wires only, you can imagine that your nerve cells are a bit like telephone wires. They have a cell body, but they also have branches that are like the thin threads of wire which help form a telephone network. Basically, they’re like connectors transmitting ‘instructions’ from different machinery parts to one another and are insulated by a type of fat called myelin – just like the way electricity wires are coated in plastic coating. A nerve is like a long bundle of nerve cells bunched together in a cord. Like wires, they run in a flexible conduit or tube, which we call the meninges.
There are three different layers of coverings protecting the nerve. They allow it to be flexible but protected from external forces and damage from obstacles so it can move and be stretched, like an electrician pulling wires through a hole in the wall to connect to the power point. And the epineurium or covering made of a fatty matter (which is an extension of the meninges) that helps insulate our nerve cells is like the plastic piping that covers electricity wires and cords.
Nerve cells need a blood supply to survive and function well. If that blood supply or the nerve cell itself is compromised, you may experience pain. The blood supply or the nerve can be compromised if compressed. If you stop the flow of the messages through a wire, the messages will stop. That’s a bit like what it’s like for a nerve cell.
So if you compress the whole nerve, which is made up of a number of aligned cells, you may have a change in the transmission of the messages carried by that nerve. Or you might cut off the blood supply and not the nerve itself. If this is the case, you may feel some tingling, numbness or pain or you may actually damage the nerve by stretching it so excessively that it breaks. Sometimes it can get stuck somewhere along the pathway during a movement.
Think of it this way. If you have a cable and you step on it, it’s difficult for tension to be transmitted through that cable. You’ll either cause some damage because of the way you stretched it, or might cause some damage because it’s been stuck at a particular point in one position.
In other cases, you’ll get compression where a nerve passes through small openings between or within tissues or structures of the body. For instance, in the spine there are spaces for the nerves to pass through between each different building block (or vertebra). If bone erroneously grows in these spaces or you develop some kind of lump or scar tissue, you can get compression of the nerve. A nerve can also get compressed when you put pressure on it because the nerve is passing a bony structure, since bones don’t move much. The area is not as forgiving for the nerve if you press where the bone sticks out, for example, in places where the nerve is passing over a bony bump.
So where would you stretch a nerve? The easiest way of thinking about it is to imagine that you’re running a line from your brain through your spinal cord, which holds all the main ‘wires’. This is the control centre of your communication system, travelling right down your back. It runs through the tunnel of holes in your stacked spinal bones (otherwise known as the vertebral canal) down to your tailbone, with the various nerves branching off the spinal cord to supply messages to and from your brain to your legs and arms. If you curl yourself down, the back part will be stretched to be longer.
If you have nerve pain, or neck or back problems with pain attributed in some part by nerves, postures such as the head down or sitting positions can cause you more pain. This is due to the nerve being stretched or the tissue around the nerves getting stretched and there’s decreased blood flow to the nerve, or even decreased transmission of messages through the nerve itself.
Treatment for nerve pain depends on the issues underlying the problem. If you’re having nerve compression from a bone pushing or protruding on the nerve, a surgeon may aim to move the bone into a position where it’s no longer blocking the movement of that nerve.
If you’re getting a stretch because you’ve got some contracture or scar tissue sticking the nerve or the surrounding down in one place, we might give you exercises or perform movements with your limbs (or perhaps with your back or neck) to help you get moving gradually. Then over time, with some exercises, you’ll be able to move freely. Also we might be able to make space simply by removing scar tissue.
Have you ever had that funny tingling sensation when you rest your elbow on a desk or chair? That’s because you have an important nerve that supplies your forearm and runs around the bony part of your elbow. If it moves a little bit or your desk is angled in such a way that the nerve gets pressed, that can be painful, which is why you get that funny sensation. If you end up doing it enough times, your body will try to heal where it keeps getting bumped and scar tissue will develop. And when you actually move your arm or hand, you’ll get a little funny sensation or pain. If we find where the scar tissue is, and we get that scar tissue freed up by working on it, we’ll be addressing the cause of the nerve pain as well as the symptoms.