How to treat cervical radiculopathy with physical therapy modalities

Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root coming out of the spinal cord becomes compressed. Compression can occur for a number of reasons. When it occurs in younger people, it can occur when a cervical disc herniates due to trauma. Whereas in older people, it commonly occurs spontaneously as a result of arthritis or decreased disc height in the neck region. When the spinal nerves are affected, they cannot correctly send messages to the muscles from the brain, nor receive adequate sensation from the specific location of the arm that the nerve is traveling through. Unfortunately, all the places that the spinal nerve travels will be affected, resulting in pain, weakness, and loss of radiated sensation in the arm.

Most pinched nerves or entrapment problems can be treated conservatively with physical therapy and patients will return to normal function. Numerous modalities can be used to help manage the symptoms associated with cervical radiculopathy.

Physical therapy modalities used to treat cervical radiculopathy

  1. Low-level laser therapy (LLLT): Low-level laser therapy is a cutting-edge treatment option. Laser light therapy uses very short wavelengths of light (600-1000nm) to penetrate human tissue to facilitate tissue healing, pain reduction, and swelling. Particles called photons assemble into waveforms to produce light. Light is transmitted through the layers of the skin at all wavelengths in the visible range. LLLT can be used to help reduce patient pain.
  2. Traction: Spinal traction is a form of decompression therapy that relieves pressure on the spine. It can be done manually or mechanically on a traction table. Spinal traction is used to treat herniated discs, sciatica, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, and many other back conditions. Spinal traction stretches the spine to relieve pressure from the compressed discs.
  3. Ultrasound therapy: Ultrasound therapy has been shown to decrease pain, increase function, and improve cartilage repair. The sound waves from the ultrasound are converted into heat within the deep tissues, which opens the blood vessels and allows oxygen to be delivered to the injured area.
  4. Electrical stimulation: A study in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that electrical stimulation reduced pain in patients with cervical radiculopathy by 40%. Electrical treatments can relieve pain by helping to relax tight or spasming muscles. This can be a great option for patients who want to stay away from medications. The treatment works in two main ways; first, it can provide stimulation that the body interprets differently from pain, and second, it can cause the muscle to contract artificially by breaking the cycle of spasms.
  5. Therapeutic Exercise: The use of cervical mobility exercises will help alleviate symptoms and increase the patient’s range of motion. Neck stretches are particularly helpful if the patient is sitting for long periods of time and will help relieve pressure on the neck.

Neck pain is the number three cause of chronic pain; with more than a quarter of Americans reporting that the neck is the location of their pain. Unfortunately, many Americans have resigned themselves to pain because they simply feel that it is a normal condition. According to a recent survey by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), nearly one in two Americans say that pain is a part of life, while another 41% believe that pain is a standard part of the aging process. It is important to educate patients about treatment options so that they can seek treatment. Patients do not need to suffer from cervical radiculopathy, especially since physical therapy can not only alleviate the symptoms, but also eradicate the problem completely.

For more information on physical therapy and popular modalities, visit

Written by Sara Zuboff

September 8, 2020
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