Have you ever experienced excruciating pain in an area of your body that feels so terrible that you know there must be something extremely wrong? Only, you go to the doctor, get some tests done, and are told that the problem is... absolutely nothing. How frustrating is that? You were almost 120% sure that something was wrong! Are you crazy?
Recently, I've been getting a lot of clients with pain that presents in one area of the body that actually stems from somewhere else. Referred pain is pain that is felt in another (remote) part of the body other than its actual source or origin. There are different types of referred pain, and some are easier than others to explain.
Nerves in your body are interconnected, and they send and receive signals to and from various parts of the body. If a nerve becomes irritated or injured, pain can occur anywhere along the course of its path. One of the most common types of referred nerve pain is sciatica. The sciatic nerve originates from the low back and runs down the leg; however, people with sciatic pain experience more severe symptoms in a distinctive pattern in the leg and foot rather than the low back.
I've been seeing a client who is a hairstylist. She has pain in both wrists and hands and thought that it was due to the repetitive nature of her job. However, she got x-rays and ultrasounds, both of which turned out to be negative. She became quite frustrated and depressed because of the lack of an answer or a diagnosis. I started to treat her neck, and she was shocked to realize that just touching her neck could affect the pain in her hands. She is now in the process of getting an MRI for her neck and a nerve conduction test for her nerves. I'm almost certain that she will soon receive the answer that she's been looking for.
Another type of referred pain comes not from nerves but muscles. Myofascial trigger points are taut bands that develop in muscle tissues undergoing abnormal stress. Abnormal stress may be caused by poor postures, muscle overload, repetitive or overuse activities, trauma, muscle imbalances, and many more. Trigger points can cause pain that radiate out to other areas of the body in distinctive patterns, and pressing on these points will reproduce one's symptoms. Treatment of these points can cause pain in a distant location to improve. Common types of trigger points include headaches caused by points in the neck or arm pain caused by points in the shoulder.
Did you know that internal organs can refer pain as well? This is difficult to understand because sometimes, organs don't create pain at their own local sites but instead, distribute pain in patterns. This is what happens when a person is having a heart attack and experiences pain in the shoulder and arm rather than the chest. Pain caused by organs can easily be missed as it gets mistaken for mechanical pain. It can be distinguished from mechanical pain as internal organ pain is typically not affected by physical movements of the body. In addition, there are generally other associated (medical) symptoms, such as weight loss/gain, loss of appetite, nausea, difficulty breathing, etc., depending on the organ that is affected.
It is important to diagnose the source of the pain so that the problematic area is treated. If you chase the symptoms and ignore the cause, you will find yourself spinning in circles. If you think you're experiencing referred pain, don't hesitate to seek out a professional to diagnose it properly!