What Is Radiating Pain and What Can Cause It?
Radiating pain is pain that travels from one body part to another. It begins in one place then spreads across a bigger area.
For example, if you have a herniated disc, you may have pain in your lower back. This pain might travel along the sciatic nerve, which runs down your leg. In turn, you’ll also have leg pain due to your herniated disc.
Radiating pain can have many causes and, in some cases, may indicate a serious underlying condition. Read on for potential causes, along with signs you should see a doctor.
What causes radiating pain?
When a body part is damaged or diseased, surrounding nerves send signals to the spinal cord. These signals travel to the brain, which recognizes the pain in the damaged area.
However, all the nerves in the body are connected. This means pain signals can spread, or radiate, throughout your body.
The pain can move along a nerve’s pathway, causing discomfort in other areas of your body that are supplied by that nerve. The result is radiating pain.
What’s the difference between radiating pain and referred pain?
Radiating pain isn’t the same as referred pain. With radiating pain, the pain travels from one part of the body to another. The pain literally moves through the body.
With referred pain, the source of pain doesn’t move or get larger. The pain is simply felt in areas other than the source.
An example is jaw pain during a heart attack. A heart attack doesn’t involve the jaw, but the pain can be felt there.
Pain can radiate from and to many parts of the body. The pain may come and go, depending on the cause.
If you experience radiating pain, pay attention to how it spreads. This can help your doctor figure out what’s going on and what’s causing the pain.
Below are some of the most common causes of radiating pain by body region.
Pain that radiates down your legs
Pain that travels down either leg may be caused by:
The sciatic nerve runs from your lower (lumbar) spine and through your butt, then branches down each leg. Sciatica, or lumbar radiculopathy, is pain along this nerve.
Sciatica causes radiating pain down one leg. You may also feel:
- pain that gets worse with movement
- a burning sensation in your legs
- numbness or weakness in your legs or feet
- painful tingling in your toes or feet
- foot pain
Sciatica can be caused by a number of different conditions that involve your spine and the nerves in your back, such as the conditions outlined below.
It can also be caused by an injury, like falling or a blow to the back, and by prolonged periods of sitting.
Lumbar herniated disc
A herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc, is caused by a ruptured or torn disc between your vertebrae. A spinal disc has a soft, jellylike center and a tough rubbery exterior. If the interior pushes out through a tear in the exterior it can put pressure on surrounding nerves.
If it occurs in the lumbar spine, it’s called a lumbar herniated disc. It’s a common cause of sciatica.
The herniated disc can compress the sciatic nerve, causing pain to radiate down your leg and into your foot. Other symptoms include:
- a sharp, burning pain in your butt, thigh, and calf that can extend to part of your foot
- numbness or tingling
- muscle weakness
Piriformis syndrome happens when your piriformis muscle puts pressure on your sciatic nerve. This causes pain in your butt, which travels down your leg.
You might also have:
- tingling and numbness that radiates down the back of your leg
- a hard time sitting comfortably
- pain that gets worse the longer you sit
- pain in the buttocks that gets worse during daily activities
Spinal stenosis is a condition that involves the narrowing of the spinal column. If the spinal column narrows too much it can put pressure on the nerves in your back and cause pain.
It typically occurs in the lumbar spine, but it can occur anywhere in your back.
Symptoms of spinal stenosis include radiating leg pain, along with:
- lower back pain, especially when standing or walking
- weakness in your leg or foot
- numbness in your buttocks or legs
- problems with balance
Bone spurs are often caused by trauma or degeneration over time. Bone spurs in your vertebrae can compress nearby nerves, causing pain that radiates down your leg.
Pain that radiates to your back
The following conditions can cause pain that travels to your back:
If there’s too much cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile, or if your gallbladder can’t empty itself properly, gallstones may form. The gallstones may cause a blockage in your gallbladder, leading to a gallbladder attack.
Gallstones may cause upper right abdominal pain that spreads to your back. The pain is usually felt between the shoulder blades.
Other symptoms may include:
- pain in your right shoulder
- pain after eating fatty foods
- dark urine
- clay-colored stools
Acute pancreatitis is a condition that occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. It causes upper abdominal pain, which may appear gradually or suddenly. The pain can radiate to your back.
Other symptoms include:
- worsening pain shortly after eating
- abdominal bloating
Advanced prostate cancer
In advanced stages, prostate cancer can spread to bones like the spine, pelvis, or ribs. When this happens, it often causes pain that radiates to the back or hips.
Pain that radiates to your chest or ribs
Pain that travels to your chest or ribs may be caused by:
Thoracic herniated disc
Herniated discs usually occur in the lumbar spine and cervical spine (neck). In rare cases, a herniated disc can form in the thoracic spine. This includes the vertebrae in your middle and upper back.
A thoracic herniated disc may press against nerves, causing thoracic radiculopathy. The main symptom is middle or upper back pain that radiates to your chest.
You may also experience:
- tingling, numbness, or a burning sensation in your legs
- weakness in your arms or legs
- headaches if you lie or sit in certain positions
A peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of your stomach or upper small intestine. It causes abdominal pain, which may travel to your chest and ribs.
Other symptoms include:
- pain when your stomach is empty
- poor appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- dark or bloody stools
If you have gallstones, you may experience muscle spasms and pain in the upper right abdomen. This pain can spread to your chest.
Pain that radiates down your arm
Possible cause of radiating arm pain include:
Cervical herniated disc
Your cervical spine is in your neck. When a herniated disc develops in the cervical spine, it’s called a cervical herniated disc.
The disc causes nerve pain called cervical radiculopathy, which begins in the neck and travels down the arm.
You may also experience:
- tingling in your hand or fingers
- muscle weakness in your arm, shoulder, or hand
- increasing pain when you move your neck
Bone spurs can also develop in the upper spine, causing cervical radiculopathy. You might feel radiating arm pain, tingling, and weakness.
Pain that travels to your left arm may, in some cases, be a symptom of a heart attack. Other signs include:
- shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- chest pain or tightness
- a cold sweat
- pain in the upper body
A heart attack is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you think you’re having a heart attack.
When to see a doctor
Mild radiating pain can often resolve on its own. However, you should see a doctor if you experience:
- severe or worsening pain
- pain that lasts longer than a week
- pain after an injury or accident
- difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels
Get immediate medical help if you suspect a:
- heart attack
- peptic ulcer
- gallbladder attack
Self-care for pain
If your pain isn’t caused by a serious medical condition, you may be able to find some relief at home. Try these self-care measures:
- Stretching exercises. Stretching may help reduce nerve compression and muscle tension. For best results, stretch regularly and gently.
- Avoid prolonged sitting. If you work at a desk, try to take frequent breaks. You can also do exercises at your desk.
- Cold or hot packs. An ice pack or heating pad may help ease minor pain.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If you have mild sciatica or muscle pain, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help ease inflammation and pain. Some of the most common NSAIDs include:
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen (Aleve)
The bottom line
Radiating pain refers to pain that travels from one part of your body to another. The reason that radiating pain happens is due to the fact that all your nerves are connected. So, an injury or issue in one area can travel along connected nerve pathways and be felt in another area.
Pain can radiate from your back, down your arm or leg, or to your chest or back. Pain can also radiate from an internal organ, like your gallbladder or pancreas, to your back or chest.
If your pain is due to a minor condition, stretching and OTC pain relievers may help. If your pain gets worse, doesn’t go away, or is accompanied by unusual symptoms, visit a doctor. They can diagnose the cause of your pain and work with you to put together a treatment plan.