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What’s the difference between referred pain and radiating pain? Referred pain is pain that is felt at a site other than where the cause of the pain is situated. One example you may be familiar with is the ‘brain freeze’ that you get after drinking a milkshake or eating ice cream. The pain stimulus is happening in your mouth and throat. However, your vagus nerve is stimulated, and the pain is felt in your brain and the back of your head. And yet we still go back for more! 
If you have referred pain sometimes you may not be sure what’s going on. You just know that you feel pain and can’t figure out why. Our advice? Don’t wait for the pain to make sense or for the painful sensation to go away – read on for more information about referred pain, and how it can be treated. 

What is referred pain? 

Referred pain is when the pain you feel in one part of your body is actually caused by pain or injury in another part of your body. This pain is typically felt deep in muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons. It is called “referred” because this pain doesn’t occur at the point of injury. Instead, it’s felt in a part of the body farther away from the actual injury. 
You can get referred pain for various reasons, which we can help you to identify when we carry out an assessment. We’ll ask questions about when the pain started, when you typically experience it, and whether you have any injuries. We’ll also need to understand the severity of the pain and how it feels. We’ll probably carry out sensation and movement tests to determine where the pain originates and what factors make the pain better or worse. 

What’s an example of referred pain? 

Examples of referred pain could be an underlying shoulder problem causing pain into the elbow, neck problems causing headaches in different regions, or hip problems causing pain in the knee. This is why education of movement and the relationship between body parts is so important. The more central the problem, the more chance you have of experiencing referred pain. 
Athletes often experience referred pain because their muscles are overcompensating for weak areas in the body. If you’re a runner you may have referred pain from the hip, or as a swimmer you may feel referred pain coming from the neck. 

What is somatic referred pain? 

Somatic referred pain is pain originating from the skin, muscles, and other soft tissues. It presents as pain in regions supplied by the same nerve roots, and it may be a dull, throbbing pain which feels vague in nature and is felt in a broad area. The location of the pain remains consistent. You’ll usually be able to clearly identify the centre of pain, but you’ll find it hard to define the boundaries. 

What’s the difference between referred pain and radiating pain? 

Although there are some differences between the two terms, in reality, they’re often used interchangeably. They both indicate that pain is felt somewhere away from the problem, but they elude to different sources. Referred pain is often due to muscular or joint pain and not always felt locally, whereas radiating pain often comes from a nerve root and has particular pattern of distribution. You may feel pain locally, at the source, as well as further away (i.e. the knee, ankle of foot). Nerve root compression is also known as radiculopathy, whereas damage to a nerve further away from the spine is known as neuropathy. 

What causes referred back pain? 

Back pain is extremely common and something we treat a lot at Fire & Earth. Low Back Pain is often known as non-specific back pain, meaning there is no specific underlying cause. Referred back pain can be caused by issues at the spinal column; nerve root compression (radiculopathy), vertebral disc damage (discogenic) or facet joint irritation (arthrogenic). It’s also important to know that these three issues can occur together and often do in elderly people. As well as these three issues occurring directly at the spine, you may also get referred pain from supporting muscles around the spine. This may be due to damaged muscle, shortened and overactive muscles, or weakened and inefficient muscles. 

What does radiating pain feel like? 

If your pain’s coming from a nerve or a nerve root, you may describe or experience your pain as been a sharp, shooting, or lightning like pain. Muscular pain may present as a dull ache, whereas bone may present as a nagging, deep, and dull pain. While there is some crossover, and we won’t take the pain description into consideration by itself, it can greatly influence the rest of the assessment. 
When we carry out your assessment we’ll ask questions about your pain because a thorough description of your pain can be a huge indicator for us and immediately help us rule out certain structures that may be involved. 
If you are experiencing pain, dull ache, tenderness or movement restricted by pain, one of our experienced therapists will be happy to see you for assessment and treatment. We may be able to assess the root cause and treat you. Book an appointment today and we’ll get you on your way to recovery. 
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