A dog’s body is an amazing machine, and what’s even more amazing is its capacity to heal, especially when it comes to nerve regeneration, the ability for nerves to heal and repair themselves. While some years back, dogs suffering from disk disease (a condition where herniated disks in the neck or back put pressure on nerves) were given only two options, expensive surgery or euthanasia, nowadays conservative therapy is often advised, giving the dog’s damaged nerves the opportunity to heal. Whether your dog has a pinched nerve in the neck or back, conservative treatment may turn handy.
What Causes Pinched Nerves in Dogs?
Just like us, dogs have several vertebrae in their necks and backs. In between the vertebrae are several discs which act like cushions meant to prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against each other. Just like us, these discs are prone to herniating (either due to an accident or aging) and when they do, they create two problems: 1) the disc gets damaged and 2) the herniated material puts pressure on the spinal cord which is made of a cables of nerves. Nerves are very fragile and prone to injury. When they are damaged, they may cause pain, or if severely affected, they may stop relaying information to and from the brain, which leads loss of sensation in the limbs and paralysis.
However, unlike us, a disc problem can be very serious in dogs because 1) their spinal cord goes from nose to tail whereas in us humans it stops short in the center of our back and 2) because of their horizontal conformation, dogs are more prone to getting problems in the discs in their neck or middle of the back which causes herniated discs to impinge on nerves in the spinal cord; whereas in us humans, problems tend to occur mostly in the lower back , which is below of where the spinal cord ends. This means that while we may just get a shooting pain, dogs are more likely to get acute pain along with weakness in the legs and possible paralysis and problems urinating. Early intervention is therefore crucial for dogs as it can make the difference between a good prognosis or life long paralysis.
Conservative Treatment Options
According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, conservative treatment consisting of cage rest, confinement and pain medications is an option for dogs who just had a first episode and have only mild neurological deficits. While nerves have chances for healing, it’s important to point out that nerves regenerate slowly. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, nerves regenerate at a rate of 1 inch per month and it can take several weeks or months and sometimes even years for the nerve injuries to resolve. On top of the nerves repairing, scar tissue must form on the damaged disk. Generally, damaged discs take about 8 weeks to repair.
“Nerves regenerate slowly (about 1 inch per month)…Some nerve injuries can resolve after several weeks or months; however, when total nerve rupture occurs, surgical reattachment is required for regeneration.” Merck Veterinary Manual
Symptoms of Pinched Nerves in Dogs
When a dog develops a pinched nerve in their neck and back, the develop signs of strong pain. With neck pain, affected dogs have trouble laying down and sleeping so they are often seen pacing around, laying down and get up, whimpering when they put their head down to sleep. They may look at you with the corner of their eyes instead of turning their head. Eating and drinking may also be painful and some dogs may also have trouble walking and may limp on their front leg as pain from the neck shoots down that leg. Affected dogs may keep the nose to the ground or high.
When there is a pinched nerve in the back, affected dogs may shake, refuse to move, yelp in pain and his gait may appear wobbly. The dog may assume a hunched back, If a dog loses complete use of his back legs and is dragging them and you also notice problems wit bladder or bowel control see your emergency vet at once.
Home Treatment for Pinched Nerves in Dogs
To help a dog’s disc and nerves to heal you will need to implement the following: strict cage rest and the administration of anti-inflammatory drugs, pain relievers and muscle relaxers (given through your vet). While conservative treatment can be done at home, it’s important to see the vet before starting as there are other conditions that may mimic a pinched nerve such as other neurological disorders or abdominal pain. Also, you will need to see your vet to get important medications for your dog.
Strict Cage Rest
Conservative treatment protocol is the home treatment for slipped discs, herniated discs, pinched nerves in neck or back. Because damaged discs may take about 8 weeks to heal, it’s important to keep the dog as quiet as possible during this time. When it comes to the dog’s nerves instead, these as mentioned tend to heal slowly, at the rate of one inch per month. During this time, it’s imperative to limit movement as much as possible. This means that if your dog must go potty, he’ll need to be walked on a leash to the potty area, or, if your dog is small, he should be carried out and then carried right back in once done. Dogs with pinched nerves should not be allowed to jump, run, play, go up and down stairs or climb up and down furniture.
“Based on my experience if deep pain is still present in their back legs (a test your vet will check) and strict cage rest for 8 weeks I would say that 40 to 50% of patients will have a return to function. For dogs without deep pain present, this conservative approach has a poorer prognosis, and little chance of return to function.” ~ Dr. Krista Magnifico
Veterinary Prescription Drugs
Because there is a lot of internal swelling going on when a dog’s disc extrudes and herniates, it’s very important to reduce the swelling at once. Once the swelling goes down, the pain and associated inflammation will reduce, helping the dog and the pinched nerve to heal. Generally, the most common anti-inflammatory drugs given to dogs consist of Rimadyl, Previcox and Metacam. While it may be tempting to try giving over-the-counter aspirin to reduce pain and inflammation in a dog with a pinched nerve, it’s important to consider that it may interfere with treatment preventing the vet from using more effective drugs. For instance, vets who may want to prescribe steroids, may not be able to prescribe them as needed because aspirin interferes with corticosteroids, so they’ll have to either delay their use until the aspirin is out of the system or prescribe lower dosages, with the end result of making the treatment less effective, warns veterinarian Dr. B. On top of prescribing steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs (never both!), vets often prescribe muscle relaxers (methocarbamol) to reduce muscle spasms and strong pain relievers such as Tramadol. Some vets may also prescribe anti-acids, as steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs raise the stomach acid pH, raising the risks for stomach ulcers.
Warm compresses applied to the pinched nerve area may prove to be soothing for some dogs. Simply fold a small wet towel and place it into a ziplock bag that is unzipped. Then, heat it in the microwave for about 2 minutes. Remove from the microwave and touch it to make sure it’s not to hot. If it’s hot, you can always wrap another towel around it and then gently place it on your dog’s back, suggests veterinarian Dr. Fiona.
The Bottom Line
Conservative treatment can be a good option for dogs with mild cases that respond well to medications and are good candidates for up to 8 weeks of rest. Many dogs also may benefit from acupuncture, physical therapy and chiropractic care. While conservative treatment may work to help a dog recover from a pinched nerve, it’s important to note that some severe cases where pain cannot be controlled with medications or where there are severe neurological deficits, dogs may need surgery.