Pain is one of the top reasons people seek medical care, so it's a frequent topic of conversation among patients and their health care providers.
Among the kinds of pain that send patients to their health care providers are: chronic pain, referred pain, arm pain, leg pain, joint pain, low-back pain, radiating pain, radicular pain, cervical radiculopathy, muscle spasms, sciatic nerve pain, lumbar spine pain, cervical spine pain and more. And among the most common (and frequently misunderstood) types of pain is radiating pain.
But before we dig into the subject, let's review some background:
Pain from an injury (and how it's different)
If you have a visible wound or injury that is causing your pain, treatment is often straightforward. The doctor's first priority is treating the injury; assuming the injury heals, your pain will subside. If your pain is severe, your doctor may treat your pain separately with medication until healing has progressed and the pain has naturally diminished.
However, sometimes pain is a patient's main problem, causing significant distress and threatening mobility and quality of life, even if the underlying cause of the pain is not a serious medical threat. In these cases, the source of pain may not be immediately obvious, and treatment may need to be more nuanced.
This is where communication between health care provider and patient about the patient's specific pain symptoms becomes key. The more thoroughly a patient can describe the kind of pain they are experiencing, the more information the health care provider has to go on in hunting down its cause and devising an effective treatment plan.
What is radiating pain?
In the example of pain caused by an obvious wound, the pain is usually felt at the site of the injury itself. This is the most common conception of pain, but it's not the only way we experience it. Other kinds of pain involve sensation in locations away from the site of the injury. These include referred pain and radiating pain.
Referred pain is pain that is caused by an injury in one location (usually an organ) but is felt elsewhere in the body. For example, the first signs of a heart attack may be pain in the teeth or jaws12, rather than chest pain near the heart. Radiating pain, which some patients might refer to as "shooting pain," is pain that travels along a nerve, and is most often caused by compression of spinal nerves, also called radiculopathy. 3
The most common form of radiating pain is sciatica, in which low-back pain or hip pain moves, often along with the patient's movement, into the buttock, down a leg and sometimes into a foot and toes. Usually sciatica is felt only on one side. Sometimes symptoms of sciatica include tingling or numbness along with or instead of pain, but the tingling sensation is also likely to radiate into the legs from the spine4, carried along the path of the sciatic nerve. 5
The radiating back, hip, and leg pain of sciatica is caused by compression (also known as impingement) of nerve roots along the spinal cord (popularly referred to as a 'pinched nerve'). This can have several causes: spinal disc herniation (also known as a 'slipped' intervertebral disc), degenerative arthritis of the spine, degenerative disc disease, pregnancy, lumbar spinal stenosis6, inflammation, subluxation, etc.
Can a chiropractor treat radiating pain?
Anyone who has experienced radiating pain knows how severely it can interfere with quality of life, limiting mobility and daily activities and increasing vulnerability to anxiety and depression. Chiropractic care offers a safe and effective treatment alternative, with fewer risks than pain medication and surgery. 7
Generally, chiropractic approaches to pain aim to get hypomobile (or stiff) joints moving again through a variety of drug-free, hands-on techniques. These can include ice/cold therapies, ultrasound and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, along with the most widely-known chiropractic treatment, spinal manipulation (also called 'chiropractic adjustment').8 Along with a series of in-office treatments, your chiropractic physician will also likely provide counseling on helpful lifestyle changes to support mobility and pain relief, including nutrition and exercise.
Research shows that chiropractic care is at least as safe and effective as other conservative approaches to pain management, such as physical therapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. It often also has lower associated costs and higher patient satisfaction.9
Patient pain has long been a difficult area for conventional medicine, particularly when patients complain of complex and chronic symptoms, such as pain that radiates. Once overly dismissive of patient pain, traditional medical doctors then overcorrected, doling out pain prescriptions readily enough to cause a new public health crisis in the opioid epidemic 10. With increasing understanding both of the long-term risks of untreated pain and the risks of conventional approaches such as medication and surgery, chiropractic care is increasingly viewed as a trustworthy first-line approach to treating patients in pain.
1 "Referred Pain": https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4327510/
2 "Referred Pain vs. Origin of Pain Pathology": https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/pain/neuropathic/referred-pain-vsorigin-pain-pathology
3 "The Difference Between Radiculopathy, Radiculitis, and Radicular": https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-radiculopathy-radiculitis-radicular-pain-4164339
4 "Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Sciatica": https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/ss/slideshow-visual-guide-to-sciatica
5 "Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Sciatica": https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19503.htm
6 "Pain Management and Sciatica": https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/guide/sciatica-symptoms
7 "What Research Shows": https://www.acatoday.org/research/what-research-shows/
8 "Chiropractic Treatment of Sciatica": https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/sciatica/chiropractic-treatment-sciatica
9 "What Research Shows": https://www.acatoday.org/research/what-research-shows/
10 "Chiropractic and the Opioid Epidemic: Rethinking Our Approach to Pain": https://www.acatoday.org/research/what-research-shows/