Referred Pain

Posted on February 26th, 2012

Have you ever gone to a Physiotherapist reporting pain in your leg and they haven’t even touched your leg, but rather treated your back instead? This is because the Physiotherapist recognised that you were suffering from a phenomenon called ‘referred pain’.

Referred pain is a term given to any pain that is felt in an area of the body that is not the true source of the pain. For example, pain in the legs often arises from dysfunction in the lower back, and arm pain or headaches can both be caused by problems in the neck. Consider when someone suffers from a heart attack and they feel pain in the left shoulder/arm. Almost every structure in the body can cause referred pain, including muscles, joints, organs and nerves.

There are two types of referred pain:

  • Radicular pain: a sharp, shooting pain that occurs when a nerve gets irritated. This type of pain is usually associated with pins and needles, numbness or weakness. ‘Sciatica’ is one example.
  • Somatic pain: a dull, achy pain that is hard to pinpoint the exact location. This type of pain occurs when one nerve collects information from two structures in the body and the brain cannot distinguish between the two structures.

Treatment of any pain requires a thorough assessment of both the area of the body that the pain is being perceived as well as the areas of the body that can refer pain to that area. If the assessment is not comprehensive, and the diagnosis of referred pain is missed, then treatment of the perceived painful area will not be effective. If the pain is determined to be referred from another source, then treatment targeted towards the source should resolve the pain.