Unless you’ve taken an extensive anatomy course or have experience dealing with different types of pain, you are most likely unaware of the symptoms your body signals when you damage a nerve versus a muscle. Although both are extremely important, these structures have different functions that inevitably create different sensations when damaged.
A nerve looks like a spaghetti noodle that begins at your spinal cord and branches out to your limbs connecting to different muscles and regions of skin. They send signals to muscles telling them to contract or relax thus causing you to move a certain body part and in turn receive signals from muscles in reference to their position and abilities. Additionally, they’re in charge of sending signals to your brain letting it know your body is in pain. We have millions of nerves throughout our body that are each responsible for sending and receiving specific and different signals. Due to the vast locations of nerves, they are susceptible to derangement, irritation, and impingement injuries. When this happens common symptoms are numbness, tingling, sharp/shooting pain down a limb, and weakness in various muscles of a limb.
A muscle tends to be a thicker tissue with a completely different anatomical structure compared to a nerve. We have many different muscles that are in charge of moving the numerous joints throughout our body. The only job of a muscle is to contract and relax, but due to its position and where it attaches to bones, it plays a large role in moving our body. Muscle contractions/relaxation are controlled by nerves, they would be unable to move without input from a nerve telling it what to do. When a muscle is damaged/injured the common symptoms include swelling around a specific muscle, possible bruising, sharp or aching pain at a specific region of your body, and inability to do specific movements due to pain at a specific joint.
Due to their anatomical correlation, one can lead to problems in the other. If a nerve is injured, it cannot send signals to its respective muscles to contract/relax thus causing weakness in that muscle due to underuse. If a muscle is injured, the swelling and scar tissue that builds up around it may compress the respective nerve and thus cause nerve-like symptoms. It is unreasonable to determine if one is worse than the other as they directly affect each other, however it does take nerves a much longer time to heal than a muscle [given proper treatment].
Regardless, it is always a good idea to get assessed by a physical therapist to determine the root cause of pain and work to reduce it and get back to normal function!
By Jennifer Santamaria PT, DPT