Sometimes pain can be quite complicated. You might find that the painful spot isn’t sore, or it is difficult to explain. This might be a case of referred pain.
Basics of Referred Pain
Referred pain can be quite a tricky process to get your head around. It’s not dissimilar to how some people have no chest pain with a heart attack, but instead feel something in their arm or jaw. The brain receives the pain signal, but rather than attributing it to the painful area, it blames it on another part of the nerve that sent the message. We commonly see this with lower back pain originating from the pelvis or other structures.
The body is divided into segments, each controlled by a nerve. This is nice an neat around the ribs: each nerve leaving the spine at this point runs between a pair of ribs and supplies that area with sensation and movement. The lower back nerves supply the legs. If one of these areas becomes painful, the dedicated nerve sends a signal to the brain. In this case, the brain sees that the signal comes from the specific nerve, but misinterprets the detail. So a problem coming from the pelvis joint might be felt as pain in the back of the leg.
How it Differs to Sciatica
Sometimes people misinterpret an experience or explanation of referred pain as something similar to sciatica. Although there are similarities, the two are quite different. Sciatica is the direct irritation of a nerve, causing symptoms along the course of the nerve itself. Referred pain is almost the reverse of this. A nerve is involved, but the nerve itself is not the problem. The brain is the thing that has misinterpreted the cause of the pain.
Symptoms can be starkly different. Sciatica can be characterised by a sharp or shooting pain in a defined line along the nerve. It might come with pins and needles too. Sciatica may cause tenderness over the painful area (but not always), but it is rare for referred pain to do so.
Identifying and Managing Referred Pain
Your osteopath will examine you thoroughly to identify the cause of your pain. Because of the hallmarks of how referred pain behaves, it is often quite easy to pick up. It may not be necessary at all to treat the painful area, as long as the root cause is addressed. Using the pelvis example from above, that might mean working on the symptomatic joint, and the joint on the other side as they often irritate each other. Your osteopath will also look at how nearby muscles are compensating, and if there are any other areas that should be working better to ease the load. Longer term management will often involve exercises, and other changes to negate any factors that played a role in the development of the problem.
Pain is typically more straight-forward when addressed early on. The brain begins to process pain differently when it has been there a long time. If you suspect that your pain may be referred, book in below to see how we can help.