Referred Pain: How Can Back Pain Feel Like Arm Pain?

Pain in your back tells you when something’s not right but it’s not particularly good at telling you exactly what’s wrong.

You might feel a ‘referred pain’ in quite another part of the body – down your arms, your legs, just in a couple of fingers or even in patches on your back  – and all apparently unrelated to the spine.

Sundial chiropractors can pinpoint exactly what’s happening and what to do about it. Read on to find out why pain gets referred and what we can do to identify where it’s really coming from.


Why Does Back Pain Manifest Elsewhere?

Nerves sometimes send signals which show up at a distant point, far from the origin of the pain. The reason for this is that many of the single nerve roots, which arise from the spinal cord and exit the vertebrae at specific points, mingle together forming a kind of switchboard of wires. A nerve group like this is called a ‘plexus’. This means that a single nerve root can supply more than one peripheral nerve (peripheral nerves spread throughout the body providing feedback to your brain and gut via connections to the spinal cord).

The Complexity of Nerve Pathways

As an example, the nerves arising from the cervical (neck) vertebrae can spread down the arms and deliver sensations at points seemingly unrelated to the neck. One particular neck vertebra supplies a nerve which runs all the way down the inside of the arm and forearm to three of the fingers of the hand. You might therefore have a nerve compression showing up as sensations in those specific three fingers and this would flag to a chiropractor where to find the problem.

Signs Your Pain Might Be Referred

Compression of the nerve root can therefore end up as referred pain, while pressure on the vertebral disc tends to feel like a more localised pain. Referred nerve pain might be experienced as deep aching or burning pain along with a tingling or ‘electrical’ shooting sensation in the arm or leg. Many people with cervical radiculopathy (pain from these neck nerve roots) might also experience this pain across the shoulder blade; and the specific site of the pain tells your chiropractor exactly which nerve roots are affected. The key to homing in on the right place to make an adjustment is careful examination and listening to your experience of pain.

Why Consulting a Chiropractor is Key

Muscle pains can also be referred away from their site of origin. An example of this would be glutes (buttock muscles) which can be experienced down the back of the leg. Muscular pain like this would be treated differently from nerve pain, so your chiropractor or physio would use trigger point therapy or soft tissue work. Our practitioners would be able to differentiate this kind of pain from disc compression pain by undertaking careful neurological examinations, such as deep tendon reflex testing, testing the strength of the muscles supplied by the nerves and sensation testing. Commonly, a muscle will reproduce a pain if pressed which is a great indicator of where to look for the source.

So if you notice an unexplained pain in an unexpected place, it could well be referred from a hidden back issue. Don’t leave it a mystery – book in to see one of the experts and find out.

Image by Goran_tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0,