Clinical Conversations

Leg Pain; It Could Be Coming From Your back!

Many times we have patients who come for physical therapy treatment describing pain in their leg, but it turns out to be coming from their spine. This is often confusing for people, especially if they have been given a provisional medical diagnosis related to the area of pain, like “piriformis syndrome”, which is pain in one of your gluteal muscles. You may wonder how we determine where the pain is coming from and what to treat. Pain is produced by sensory nerves. Sensory nerves can be triggered locally at the spinally level, or peripherally either by muscle tension or injury. During the evaluation we always perform spine ROM to determine if the source could be coming from the spine. The screen must begin from the center outward. In some cases, knee/hip/ankle pain will decrease or increase during the lumbar spine screen, and then we know it is coming from the spine. This can be hard to understand for some patients because the pain they are experiencing feels like it is coming from that very spot, whether it is a joint or muscle, that is painful. For example, I recently evaluated a patient with ankle pain. She had even fallen, which made it possible she could have some trauma to her ankle from the fall. However, during the lumbar spine screen, her ankle pain decreased while performing a back bend. She was in disbelief that her ankle pain went away. After only a few visits her ankle pain was gone and it did not return. One of her lumbar discs was pressing on a nerve root and causing her ankle pain, and the back bending pushed the disc away from the nerve and abolished the pain. The moral of the story is, we can never assume a diagnosis until a thorough examination is performed.