Your leg hurts.
There’s a sharp pain every time you turn your neck.
You experience a dull throbbing in your lower back, hip and leg.
Unfortunately, when it comes to musculoskeletal pain, it isn’t always that straightforward!
In many cases, the root cause of your musculoskeletal pain may be in a completely different part of your body.
This is what we call “referred pain”.
In short, referred pain is pain that’s felt in one part of your body, but which is actually caused by a problem somewhere else.
In many cases, the pain you feel is simply a symptom of a problem somewhere else.
Today, our Highett physio explains why this happens, and how you can identify and treat the true source of your musculoskeletal pain…
What causes referred pain?
In many cases, referred pain happens because of how your central nervous system is set up.
Your body contains a complex network of interconnected sensory nerves that relay information to and from the brain.
When it comes to musculoskeletal pains and aches, afferent nerves (nerves that relay info to the brain) from different parts of your musculoskeletal systems can run similar pathways, and can even converge on the same neurons in the central nervous system.
In less technical terms, pain signals from different parts of the body often travel up towards spinal cord and brain using the same pathways.
Since they take the same path, this can confuse your brain and cause it to have trouble distinguishing which part of the body it’s coming from.
Common examples of referred pain
As we’re sure you know, a sore shoulder, shooting pains in your left arm and aches in your upper back are three tell-tale signs of a heart attack.
This is one of the most well-known cases of referred pain.
However, that isn’t the only common example…
Pinched nerves and sciatica
Nerve roots branch off your spine.
Problems with your spine such as “slipped” discs (misnomer commonly used to refer to disc injuries) and injuries can compress or squish the nerve roots, a condition we refer to as pinched nerves.
This in turn can result in referred pain that manifests in your extremities.
One particularly common example of this is your sciatic nerve. This nerve is the longest in your body, running from around your lower back down to your toes.
When the sciatic nerve is pinched, your brain might interpret pain signals from your spine as leg pain. This condition is known as sciatica.
Of course, pinched nerves can occur anywhere along your spine, which in turn can cause referred pain and weakness all over your body.
Neck and shoulder pain
Referred pain is especially common in parts of the body that are in close proximity to one another.
As a result, they are intimately connected by multiple nerve pathways, which can confuse the brain and result in referred pain.
Neck and shoulder pain are great examples. In many cases, neck pain is simply a symptom of shoulder pain, and vice-versa!
Not all headaches are caused by stress – in some cases, headaches are an example of referred pain!
There are many different types of headache, with different causes. Today, we’ll be focusing on cervicogenic headaches.
These headaches arise from problems with the muscles, nerves, or bones in your neck, rather than a problem that’s rooted in the brain itself. Typically, you’ll feel a moderate throbbing towards the back of your skull.
Dysfunction in your neck can send pain signals directly to your brain stem, which the brain interprets as a headache rather than as neck pain.
It can be exacerbated by:
- Bad posture (positions of low tissue tolerance)
- Weak neck muscles
- Problems with the discs in your neck
- Neck injuries
How can your physiotherapist help with referred pain?
We’ll identify the root cause
The only way to rid yourself of referred pain is to identify the true source – otherwise, the pain will simply continue, while the treatments you’re prescribed will do nothing at all as they’re targeting the wrong part of your body altogether.
Luckily for you, physiotherapists are experts in diagnosing musculoskeletal problems and disorders.
In most cases, referred pain presents slightly different symptoms. Armed with this knowledge, your physio can separate cases of referred pain from other problems, and home in on the actual problem.
Your physio starts each consultation by diving into your circumstances with you. During your initial consult, we’ll talk about the exact nature of your pain, and also run through your symptoms.
We can help treat referred pain
Once we know the cause of your referred pain, it’s time to start treating it.
Depending on the exact cause of your referred pain, your Highett physio will prescribe a range of different treatments, including:
- Physical therapy
- Dry needling
- Remedial massage
- Strength-building exercises
- Mobilisation techniques
- Individualised home exercise routines
There’s a whole laundry list full of treatments we might include in your treatment plan. The exact combination varies – your body is different from others’ after all, as is your lifestyle and level of activity.
As such, your treatment plan will also need to be unique!
Call an Highett physio for your musculoskeletal pain
At Physio AUS, our Highett physio doesn’t stop once the pain goes away. One of the things that makes us unique is how hard we work to ensure that your musculoskeletal pains and aches never return!
Our AUS system is unique, in that it puts a heavy focus on lasting solutions.
In addition to exercises and treatments, we’ll also suggest lifestyle changes, as well as technique training for athletes and tradies. We’ll even suggest physical aids if needed.
Don’t let pain get the better of you! Whether it’s referred pain or chronic aches that have been with you for years, the team at Physio AUS can help you.