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What Causes Radiating Back Pain & How To Treat It

Illustration of a man holding his back in pain

Introduction and Summary

Back pain is one of the most common symptoms that people experience and one of the main reasons people visit a doctor. Radiating back pain means that the back pain moves from one part of your body to another. For example, lower back and front thigh pain or pain that radiates from the lower back down both legs is a common sign of sciatica.

In this article we’ll explore:

The Anatomy of the Back

Before taking a look at the various causes of back pain, let’s take a moment to discuss the complex anatomy of the human back.

  • The spine, or backbone, runs up our back and has various important functions. It provides the body with support and protects the important nerves of the spinal cord. The spine is made up of vertebrae, which are a series of interlocking bones stacked on top of one another. The vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs, which cushion the vertebrae and keep them from rubbing together.
  • The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages from the brain to the body, and back. Spinal cord nerves come off at each level of the spine and exit the spine between adjacent vertebrae.
  • Back muscles help stabilize your spine and are almost constantly in use. In fact, these are the very muscles that help you stand up straight.
  • Ligaments are strong bands that connect one bone to another. The vertebrae in your spine are interconnected by ligaments.

Back pain can stem from a problem with any of these components, so it’s important to pay attention to the clues in your back pain symptoms to help identify the cause of your back pain.

What Are the Possible Causes of Radiating Back Pain?

There are many possible causes of back pain. The most common causes fall into a few major categories of health concerns.

  • Muscle or ligament strains: These are extremely common. They can be caused by sudden or awkward movements, for example if you try to lift something that is too heavy or if you fall in an awkward fashion. So if you have lower back pain on the left side above your hip, this may be a muscle or ligament strain.
  • Radiculopathy: Radiculopathy is a disease of a spinal cord nerve. This can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness in the body part supplied by the nerve. Radiculopathy is typically caused by compression of the nerve as it leaves the spinal cord. This often happens when an intervertebral disc bulges and compresses the nerve as it leaves the spine. Sciatica is one example of radiculopathy that involves the leg, while upper back pain radiating to the arm may indicate radiculopathy of the upper part of your spine.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis is inflammation of a joint, and can cause pain in the joints of your spine.
  • Fractures: A fracture in the spine can result from trauma, or when bones degenerate over time, as can be seen with osteoporosis.
  • Infections: Such as kidney infections, can also cause lower back pain with frequent urination, back pain along your flank, or back pain radiating to the front, towards your bladder during urination.

Additional Symptoms to Watch For

If you have unbearable back pain and basic treatments aren’t helping, you should talk to a doctor. You should also see your doctor if you have a history of cancer or osteoporosis, as these conditions predispose you to more serious causes of back pain. Radiating back pain could be a sign of a dangerous medical condition. If you have any of the symptoms below, you should be evaluated by a physician immediately:

  • Weakness in your arms or legs
  • Loss of control of your bowels or bladder
  • Fever above 100.4° F (38° C)
  • Pain after a fall or other trauma

Possible Back Pain Diagnoses & Treatments to Consider

If you have back pain, there are various steps you can try to alleviate your pain at home and support your body as it heals:

  • Continue the activities you can tolerate, such as sitting, standing, or walking, but avoid those that worsen the pain, like low back pain when straightening up from bending.
  • Try over-the-counter pain medications, like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Use a warm compress by placing a warm towel or hot water bottle on your back. This can help relax the muscles in your back and soothe some of the pain.

Still in Pain? What to Do Next

If these interventions do not help and you still have unbearable back pain, you should contact your physician, who may prescribe you stronger pain medications, refer you for physical therapy, or complete other diagnostic tests such as an x-ray of your spine. Of course, you should also remember to take steps on a daily basis to prevent back pain, like doing exercises to strengthen your core muscles (especially abdomen and back), maintaining a healthy body weight, and focusing on good posture.

How K Health Can Help

Radiating back pain can be related to a variety of medical and orthopedic conditions. It’s important to seek care if your back pain is accompanied by other symptoms like weakness or fever. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Edo Paz, MD

Edo Paz is the VP of Medical at K Health. Dr. Paz has two degrees in chemistry from Harvard and an MD from Columbia University. He did his medical training in internal medicine and cardiology at New York-Presbyterian. In addition to his work at K Health, Dr. Paz is a cardiologist at Heartbeat Health, a cardiology practice located in New York City.