It is common for patients to experience pain, tingling, or numbness in an arm or leg, but have no injury or condition present in the affected area to explain the symptoms. Believe it or not, the problem might not actually be in the arm or the leg, but rather in the spine. Nerves branch out from the spine throughout the body, including the arms and legs. When a nerve that runs through an arm or leg is compressed as the result of a spinal condition, it can cause “referred pain” in that arm or leg.
Let’s discuss common symptoms of spinal conditions presenting in the arms and legs, and how we confirm that those symptoms do in fact stem from a spinal condition.
Common Signs of a Spinal Condition
Arm or leg symptoms resulting from a spinal condition can present in different ways, depending on the condition. Spinal stenosis, herniated discs, and degenerative disc disease can all lead the the compression of nerves that run through the arms or legs.
If a nerve running down one of the legs is compressed, it is common to feel a burning pain. Others describe the pain as feeling like a jolt of electricity that shoots from the lower back all the way down the leg. This type of pain is common when a nerve root in the lower spine is compressed. For some, the pain is constant, and for others, the pain is intermittent, and may get better or worse when in certain positions, like sitting or standing.
Numbness or tingling in the legs or feet is also common if a nerve root is compressed. The sensation is like what you would experience when your leg or foot “falls asleep,” but often happens more frequently and for much longer periods of time.
If a nerve root is compressed in the neck, similar symptoms may be present in the arms. The pain may be contained to just the shoulder, or radiate down the arm. Some patients experience dull pain all over, while others experience sharp, burning pain. Numbness and tingling is also common. Some patients find that their pain gets better or worse when moving the neck different ways. These movements are likely increasing or decreasing pressure on the nerve root, which can increase or decrease pain.
How Do We Know a Spinal Condition is to Blame?
In order to accurately diagnose a spinal condition, your doctor will likely do a complete examination, including a patient history, a physical exam, and diagnostic tests. Imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans can help to pinpoint a compressed nerve root. X-rays can also help to determine whether damage to the vertebrae is contributing to the problem. In some cases, injections may be used to pinpoint the exact location of the compressed nerve.
It is often a combination of these things that leads to a diagnosis. If you are experiencing arm or leg pain, make note of how often you experience the pain, and how the pain feels. Does it feel better or worse in certain positions? Is it a dull pain, or more of a shooting pain? Being able to describe your pain in detail can help your doctor to give you an accurate diagnosis. Even if you see your family doctor for your arm or leg pain, a well-trained physician should be able to recognize the symptoms of a spinal condition and refer you to a spine specialist if needed.
While arm or leg pain does not necessarily indicate a problem in the spine, it’s an option you may want to explore if the symptoms we discussed are present.