Have you experienced sciatica ?  Headache that has been originating from the neck or shoulders?  All these are examples of what we commonly call referred pain.

referred pain

What is referred pain?

Referred pain refers to pain that is felt in other areas of the body other than the source.  Common instances include sciatic pain in which pain is originating from the nerves around the low back.  However, it can result in referred pain with sharp or shooting pain into the bottom, thigh or down the leg.

The same phenomenon does not just occur with musculoskeletal conditions.  Bodily organs can also create referred pain.  For example, heart attack or cardiac issues can cause pain in the left arm or left side of the jaw.

Why does referred pain occur?

Although referred pain can be common, the exact science behind referred pain is not fully understood.  The most common theory is that nerves that are not directly affected become stimulated.  Nerves around the body all converge at some point around the spinal cord.  Various nerves around the body all flow into similar aspects of the spine.  For example, nerves that supply the neck and upper back also supply the upper limb and arm.  As a result, when pain comes in from a nerve around the neck, it can stimulate and create referred pain in the arm or shoulder.  Shoulder and arm pain that actually originates from the neck can be common.

In some cases, referred pain can occur without symptoms at the originating source.   Sciatica is another relatively common example.  The referred pain in sciatic conditions commonly occurs in the bottom, thigh or leg.  Even though the originating source in sciatica is the low back, sciatic can present with or without localized back or buttock pain.

How do I treat referred pain?

Locating the source and addressing the problem is the key to treating referred pain.  Once the source of your pain can be identified, a treatment plan can be identified to address the cause of your symptoms.

Treating referred pain without addressing the cause often results in short term relief with little long-lasting benefit.

In chronic cases, a multi-disciplinary approach can be very effective for referred pain.

Can physiotherapy help referred pain?

Physiotherapists are well placed to thoroughly assess and identify the cause of your symptoms.  With a very thorough understanding of anatomy and the nervous systems, physiotherapists are able to assess where your pain signals are coming from.

Depending on the structure causing pain, your physiotherapist can use a range of treatment techniques to provide pain relief and address the symptoms.  These could include joint mobilisation, dry needling and massage to address pain symptoms.  Exercises to focus on mobility or strength may also be used to ensure long lasting results.

If you are experience referred pain, contact our team at Malvern East Physiotherapy.  Book online or call us today!