Woman on couch experiencing leg pain

Leg Pain: Is it a Pinched Nerve?

Leg Pain: Is it a Pinched Nerve?

If you’ve been experiencing odd tingling sensations and pain in your legs and lower back, it could be a pinched nerve. However, there are other conditions that can cause leg and back pain but have nothing to do with nerve damage. But how do you know? Here is how to tell if your leg pain is the result of a pinched nerve. 

What is a Pinched Nerve?

A pinched nerve is the result of compression on a particular point on the nerve. Whether an anatomical or external cause, bones and other tissues put pressure on the nerve, interrupting the exchange of signals from brain-to-nerve and back again. Leg pain caused by a pinched nerve, however, can be a little tricky. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a pinched nerve in the wrist, and that’s where you feel it—from the wrist up into the hand and fingers. A pinched nerve in the neck causes neck pain, and you can feel a pinched thoracic nerve in the middle of your back. 

But when a pinched nerve is the cause of leg pain, it usually originates in the lumbar area. Lumbar radiculopathy—more commonly called sciatica—causes symptoms not only in the lower back, but sometimes all the way down to your feet. 

Causes of Sciatica

As with most pinched nerves, there can be several issues behind the problem. Age interferes with the integrity of the spinal cord, making issues like a herniated disc or degenerative disc disease more likely. A herniated disc occurs when the padding between discs leaks out, putting pressure on the nerve root. As the discs herniate and begin to break down, this too can be problematic for nearby nerves. Growths of bone on the spine called bone spurs and episodes of intense trauma may also be responsible for pinched nerves.

 Being overweight increases the load put on the spine, which makes it easier for the spine to degenerate over time. A sedentary lifestyle (whether by choice or because of occupational requirements, as is the case with a truck driver) and repetitive movements that require twisting at or around the hips can also increase your risk of experiencing sciatica. 

Symptoms of Sciatica

The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back down the backs of both legs. When the sciatic nerve gets compressed or “pinched”, you may experience a range of pain levels in the lower back which commonly radiates down the nerve into the buttocks and down the back of (generally) one leg. This pain may be an uncomfortable throbbing or a sharp jolt of very intense pain. The leg and foot may exhibit a tingling sensation or go numb because of the interference of communication between the nerves and the brain.

Activities that put quick, strong stress on the body (like sneezing) can make the pain worse, as can long periods of sitting. Mobility is often inhibited, both by the pain and by muscle weakness that occurs with sciatica. 

When it isn’t Sciatica

There are some disorders specifically involving the nerves that can mimic some of the pain and numbness associated with sciatica. For example, peripheral neuropathy is most common in the feet (and hands) and causes tingling, numbness, and pain. 

Treatment is quite different from that used for sciatica, but in both cases faster treatment means a fuller recovery. Sciatica left unchecked can actually result in permanent nerve damage. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, or have been treating yourself for sciatica that isn’t getting better or is getting worse, seek medical assistance for a more definite diagnosis and a beneficial treatment plan. 

Last Updated: September 06, 2016