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Radiating Pain

By Dr. Scott Rosenthal

Doorbells are amazing! Pushing a button here makes a chime or ring over there. Incredible! With this revelation, you are ready to understand the source of radiating symptoms into your arms, thighs and/or legs.

In the lower region of the neck, a network is created by several of the nerves exiting the spine. This wiring harness controls and coordinates the activities of the arm, forearm and hand. A similar network, created by nerves exiting the lower back, sends messages to the thighs, legs and feet. If you desire to ring a doorbell, pick-up and dial your cell phone, brush your teeth or take a walk in the park, the brain operates your upper and lower extremities through these hard-wired pathways.

Our bodies are not Wi-Fi equipped! Any problem that arises with the nerves can ring a bell of symptoms or create loss of function down the line. Typically, the damage originates at the level of the spinal nerve root. This is the branching nerve that runs off the spinal cord and exits through an opening created by two spinal bones that are joined together by an intervertebral disc. 31 pairs of nerves exit the spine and tailbone, and each contains thousands of fibers that control muscles, organs, glands and blood vessels. They also carry fibers that perceive sensations such as pain, burning and tingling.

Spinal misalignment and/or disc herniation (“slipped discs”) are common conditions that are presented to chiropractors. In each case, it is typical that the spinal nerve root is damaged, and normal nerve function is obstructed. Due to the different fibers contained in the spinal nerve root, symptoms can be mixed. Muscular weakness and atrophy may accompany pain or numbness. Pins and needles may present with muscle cramps. The region may span the entire extremity. Some only experience pain in a single toe or finger. Symptoms can be periodical, like a doorbell that is pressed once an hour, or sustain an unrelenting ring.

Due to the organ, gland and blood vessel fibers within the spinal nerve roots, problems that are often thought to be unrelated to the back or neck frequently exist. Patients with sciatica or pain in the buttocks and/or down the back of the thigh may also suffer from constipation or diarrhea. Tingling in the arm may accompany frequent ear problems or sinus congestion.

What happens when you suffer from radiating symptoms and go to a chiropractor’s office? Our first job is to take your medical history and perform a thorough examination to determine the cause of your problem. X-rays may be performed, an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) study ordered or other tests prescribed. Once the full clinical picture is drawn, corrective care is initiated.

Care would include, what is called in chiropractic, a spinal adjustment. This involves a gentle maneuver, with an instrument or by hand, that is designed to restore the alignment and position of the adjoining spinal bones and the disc that is sandwiched in the middle. Correction of the spinal position restores the spinal nerve root to its proper function… the finger is removed from the doorbell and the radiating symptoms cease to exist. You feel and function normally again!

The doctor of chiropractic may use other treatments that range from traction to rehabilitative exercises and stretches. Adjustments to the joints of the extremities may be necessary. Soft tissue techniques may be employed to release tension in the muscles and connective tissues. The approach is holistic and takes into consideration all of the different parts that contribute to radiating symptoms and/or loss of function or weakness.

The chiropractic approach is highly effective. Aside from the seeing positive results in the office each day, research reviewing 59 patients with back pain and radiating leg pain caused by a lower back disc herniation found improvement in 90% of the cases. Another study of patients suffering from sciatica compared chiropractic care to bed rest, massage, electrical muscle stimulation, NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and a muscle relaxant. The people receiving chiropractic care experienced faster symptom relief, a significant reduction in the length of care, less disability and fewer missed days at work.

Whether you are suffering with a herniated disc in the neck or back as seen on an MRI  or are just beginning to feel a questionable symptom after falling asleep on the couch, it is comforting to know that chiropractors are experts in dealing with the spine and the nerve root problems discussed. Due to chiropractic’s safe, effectiveness and noninvasive/conservative approach, consider making it your first call if you are experiencing radiating symptoms into your arm or leg.


J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1995 Jul-Aug;18(6):335-42.

Sandoz RW. The Paretic and Paralyzing Sciaticas. Ann Swiss Chiro Assoc. 1989;9:133-148.