There are many words used to describe the quality and location of pain. Pain that originates in the spine is often described as radiating. But what, exactly, does that mean?
What is radiating pain?
When an injury sends pain signals to your spinal cord, those signals can sometimes travel along the nerve’s pathway, causing pain outside the area of the injury. That’s why an injury in the spine can cause symptoms in the arms or legs, for example.
What is the difference between radiating and referred pain?
Radiating and referred pain can be confusing. They’re both types of pain that are felt somewhere other than the original injury. The difference is that radiating pain extends from the site of the initial pain, usually along a nerve pathway.
Referred pain exists separate from the original injury that caused it. This is common with internal organs – like feeling back pain from a kidney stone. An injury like a herniated disc or bone spur in your lower back can irritate the sciatic nerve, and the pain can radiate down your leg.
What causes hip pain that radiates down the leg?
Pain that originates in the hip can radiate down the front, sides, or back of the leg, and may even extend to below the knee. The location depends on the cause of the hip injury. Common causes of radiating hip pain include:
- Bursitis – pain can radiate down the side of the thigh.
- Osteoarthritis – pain through the hip and groin that may radiate down the front of the leg to below the knee.
- Hip impingement – pain can radiate down the front of the thigh.
- Nerve pain – irritation of the sciatic nerve can radiate down the back of the thigh to the calf.
What causes pain in the neck and shoulder radiating down the arm?
Nerve pain that radiates from the neck down the arm is called cervical radiculopathy. It can also include numbness or weakness. Some common causes include:
- Herniated disc – an injured disc can bulge into the spinal canal and irritate a nerve, causing pain to radiate down the neck, arms, or both.
- Bone spurs – nerve pain caused by a bone spur or age-related changes can cause pain to radiate down the arms.
- Osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease – age-related wear and tear may cause compression on the spinal nerves, causing radiating pain.
- Heart attack – pain that radiates down the arm can indicate a heart attack. The left arm is most common, but the pain can radiate down both arms. If you have radiating pain with symptoms like chest pain or tightness, cold sweat, lightheadedness, nausea, and shortness of breath, call 911 immediately.
What causes lower back pain that radiates down both legs?
Pain that radiates from the lower back down the legs can have several causes.
Sciatica – pain caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve typically affects one side at a time but can cause pain, burning, tingling, or numbness in both legs.
Herniated disc – an injured disc can bulge into the spinal canal and irritate a nerve, causing pain in the lower back that radiates down the buttocks, thighs, legs, and even the feet.
Spinal stenosis – narrowing in the spinal canal can put pressure on nerves and spinal cord, causing symptoms down the lower back and legs.
Spondylolisthesis – a condition where a vertebra slips out of place and rests on the vertebra directly below it. It can compress or pinch a nerve.
Degenerative disc disease – wear-and-tear on the vertebral discs can cause narrowing of the intervertebral disc space, compressing a nerve root.
When to See a Doctor About Radiating Pain
If you have radiating pain in your neck or back, the time to see a doctor is now. Back or neck pain that radiates can be a sign of a condition that won’t resolve on its own and can worsen over time. Don’t suffer from radiating pain- schedule an appointment today!