What Is Radicular Pain?
Learn about radicular pain, including the types, causes, signs, symptoms, and treatment options.
Table of Contents
What Does Radicular Pain Feel Like?
Pain is never pleasant to deal with, so determining the type of pain you are experiencing could bring experts closer to finding a treatment. Radicular pain affects the nerves in the back or neck area. It travels up the spinal nerve root and can be felt throughout the hips, legs, and spine.
Radicular symptoms include tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness. The pain experienced can range from a dull aching that is difficult to localize to a sharp, burning sensation.
How Is Radicular Pain Linked to Radicular Syndrome?
People with radicular pain will often have a back pain differential diagnosis of radicular syndrome—radicular pain caused by irritated or compressed nerves. Radicular symptoms may manifest due to a herniated disc or degenerative changes in the spine.
Nerve roots are branches of the spinal cord that carry nerve signals to the rest of the body. Herniated discs, compressed nerves, and other factors can irritate the nerve roots due to bone spurs or nerve root tunnels collapsing (a condition referred to as foramen).
While motor symptoms may occur, sensory symptoms are more commonly associated with the condition. If muscle weakness is experienced, it is usually due to severe compression.
A Closer Look at Radicular Pain
Radicular Pain vs. Radiculopathy: What’s the Difference?
When considering radicular pain vs. radiculopathy, it is important to note that radiculopathy is a type of radicular pain. Radicular pain is caused by an inflamed root or compressed nerve root. For instance, an inflamed root in the neck may cause pain to radiate throughout the hand and arm. This type of pain is often associated with cervical pain patterns.
Radiculopathy occurs when the inflamed or compressed nerve leads to neurological issues that may affect reflexes and result in numbness or weakness. For example, sciatica is a common type of radiculopathy characterized by pain radiating from the lower back down the leg. It is characterized as a deep, steady pain that may worsen when certain activities are performed.
Radicular pain and radiculopathy can occur independently or simultaneously. Medical professionals tend to use the terms interchangeably, and while they do have their differences, treatment methods tend to be the same.
Types of Radicular Pain
There are various types of radicular pain that may occur. These types include the following:
Lumbar Radicular Pain
Lumbar radicular pain is the most common type of radicular pain. It occurs in the lumbar area of the back, which consists of the vertebrae labeled one through five situated between the chest and the sacrum. The condition tends to manifest as pain, numbness, and weakness in the buttock and leg. It is usually caused by spinal nerve root compression.
Thoracic Radicular Pain
Thoracic radicular pain is the least common type of radicular pain. It is caused by a compressed or pinched nerve root in any location along the spine’s thoracic area. The pain is felt in the upper part of the spine, and it can wrap around to the front of the body. Thoracic radicular pain can cause pain, weakness, tingling, and numbness. It may be brought on by stenosis, bone spurs, disc herniation, and other conditions.
Cervical Radicular Pain
Cervical radicular pain patterns occur due to a pinched nerve in the neck that becomes compressed or irritated where it branches off from the spine. The pain radiates throughout the shoulder and arm area. It is usually caused by wear and tear as well as the changes that occur in the spine as we age. Older people may experience it as a symptom of arthritis. In younger people, it may come on due to a herniated disc.
Causes of Radicular Pain
A variety of factors can cause radiculopathy. Here are some that may be at the root of the condition:
Compressive or Inflammatory Condition
A compressive or inflammatory condition can put pressure on the spine’s nerves, causing radiculopathy.
Bone spurs are small bony growths that can develop in the bone’s joints where the cartilage has worn thin. They can cause pain that radiates throughout the neck and lower back. Bone spurs are most commonly caused by joint damage due to osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.1
Spondylosis is a degenerative arthritic condition that affects the spine and can produce bone spurs that cause radicular symptoms. It can be caused by a variety of conditions, including dehydrated discs, bone spurs, herniated discs, and stiff ligaments.
Disc herniation occurs when a disc in the spine becomes displaced. It is usually due to wear and tear that results in degeneration. The positioning of the disc can put pressure on the nerve causing it to become irritated.
This condition occurs when the vertebrae slip out of place and fall on the vertebra below it, putting pressure on the nerves and leading to back and neck pain. It is usually caused by an injury but can also be the manifestation of a birth defect.
A Further Look at the Symptoms
Predisposing Factors to Radicular Pain
There are certain factors that can increase the likelihood of something developing radicular pain symptoms. These include:
Obesity puts pressure on the back, making discs and vertebrae more likely to herniate and become displaced—causing radicular pain.
Slouching and slumping can set the spine out of line, putting pressure on discs, vertebrae, and nerves.
Wearing heels puts the body into an unnatural posture. This has negative effects on the back and increases the risk of radiculopathy.
A study conducted in May 2015 showed that people who drive a lot are at higher risk of developing radiculopathy than people that don’t drive as often. This is due to the whole-body vibrations one experiences when driving a car. It is likely to occur in people who drive for a living.2
Poor Job Satisfaction
Poor job satisfaction can lead to mental stress that can send the body’s alignment out of order. Additionally, working at a physically demanding job can result in spinal injuries.
Signs and Symptoms of Radicular Pain
Radicular pain symptoms will vary depending on each person’s condition. Here are common examples of radicular pain symptoms:
Cervical radicular pain occurs in the neck area in the nerves that branch out from the spine. It will produce severe pain in the upper part of the body. Cervical radicular symptoms include:
- Neck Pain: The irritated nerve is located in the neck area, so it is likely to feel pain during neck movement or when keeping still.
- Pain That Radiates to the Arms and Hands: The nerves in the neck travel down to the arms and hands, so it’s not unusual to feel pain in these areas.
- Numbness in the Shoulders, Arms, Hands, and Fingers: Nerve pain is often linked to numbness in the affected area.
- Muscular Weakness: Muscular weakness is a common symptom of motor nerve damage.
- Pain That Radiates to the Shoulders and Chest: Even though the pain occurs in the neck area, it can radiate to the shoulders and chest.
Thoracic radicular pain occurs in the upper part of the spine, so symptoms are more likely to be felt in the top part of the torso. One may experience the following types of discomfort:
- Chest Pain: Although the source of pain may be in the back, it is not uncommon to radiate out into the chest.
- Numbness or Tingling Sensations: Severe nerve pain is often associated with feelings of numbness and tingling.
- Tight Feeling in the Chest: The pain in the chest can cause tightness that may feel as if someone is dealing with cardiac arrest.
- Pain That Radiates to the Abdomen: Severe nerve pain may get into unlikely areas, such as the abdomen.
Lumbar radicular pain occurs in the lower part of the back. Here are some of the radicular pain symptoms one may experience with this condition:
- Lower Back Pain: Since pinched nerves and irritation are typically situated in the lower back, people will likely feel lumbar radicular pain.
- Pain the Radiates to the Legs and Feet: It’s not unusual to experience radicular leg pain along with lumbar symptoms. If someone has radiculopathy, the pain may radiate all the way to the feet.
- Numbness in Legs: Nerve damage often causes numbness that may be felt in the legs and lower back area.
- Muscular Weakness: Radicular nerve pain can result in muscular weakness, which can be experienced in any of the affected areas.
- Burning Pain in Hips: Radicular symptoms of lumbar radicular pain may include a burning sensation in the hips and lower back.
A doctor will provide a back pain differential diagnosis to let the patient know what type of radicular pain they have.
Learn More: Lumbar Radicular Pain vs. Referred Pain
Screening and Diagnosis of Radicular Syndrome
Radicular syndrome is not easy to diagnose. After all, nerve damage is not visible to the human eye. Therefore, a combination of processes is integrated, such as:
Physical Exams and Physical Tests
A doctor may perform physical exams and tests to check muscle strength and reflexes. For example, if a patient experiences pain when moving a certain way, this will help identify the affected nerve root.
There are a variety of imaging tests that allow doctors to see the structure of the problem area. These include:
X-Ray: X-rays are types of radiation that create pictures of the inside of the body.
MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic field and computer-generated radio waves to form pictures of the anatomy.
CT Scan: Computerized tomography or CT scan combines x-ray images taken from different angles around the body and uses a computer to form a detailed view of the anatomy.
Electromyography: Electromyography measures the body’s muscle response or the electrical activity when nerves are stimulated.4 It is often combined with nerve conduction studies to pinpoint the issue.
Treatment Options for Radicular Pain
Radicular pain is not easy to deal with, but fortunately, various treatments are available. These include surgical and non-surgical remedies as follows:
Patients have a few non-surgical options to help treat their radicular pain.
Pain relievers, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammatory medications can be used to reduce pain and inflammation associated with radicular pain patterns. Steroid and oral injections can also be helpful.
Physical therapy is another method used to relieve radicular pain symptoms. A physical therapist teaches patients certain exercises that target the root of the pain, improve strength, and may even serve as a surgery alternative. They usually teach exercises that can be done during the sessions and include exercises that can be done at home.
Traction is a non-surgical medical procedure used to treat various types of radicular pain. It involves wearing or getting into a device that holds the body in place to relieve the pressure on the affected nerve. The idea is to get the body used to the posture to eliminate radicular low back pain, radicular leg pain, and more.
There are several surgical treatments that patients can consider.
This surgery removes lumbar herniated disc material that is pressing on the nerve root or spinal cord. It can be done as a microdiscectomy, a less invasive method that uses a microscope to view the discs and nerves.
A laminectomy removes part or all of the vertebral bone. It eases pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots.
Laser Debridement and Facet Thermal Ablation
This minimally invasive surgical procedure involves lasers that clean facet joints and remove nerves causing radiculopathy.
Home Remedies for Radicular Pain
After a doctor makes a back pain differential diagnosis, they may recommend home remedies that can be used on their own or in conjunction with medical treatment to reduce radicular pain symptoms. These include:
- Restless Bed Rest: Restless bed rest involves staying in bed while performing certain movements to keep the body active.
- Avoid Twisting Movements: Any twisting movement that is aggravating radicular symptoms should be avoided.
- Quit Smoking: Smoking has been shown to be linked to an increased risk of radicular pain. Quitting smoking can decrease the likelihood of developing the condition and improve symptoms.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption: Alcohol can cause people to move in ways that will irritate their nerves, and they may not realize it until after sobering up. It also contributes to weight gain, putting added pressure on the back.
- Maintain Pain-Free Posture: It’s important to maintain a posture that does not put pressure on the affected area. Traction may help people achieve the posture they need to heal.
- Avoid Lifting of Pushing Heavy Objects: Lifting or pushing heavy objects will make the pain worse.
- Follow Proper Rest After Injury: The affected area will be in a sensitive position immediately after it’s injured, and people won’t want to do anything to exacerbate their condition. Follow the doctor’s orders regarding bed rest.
How J. Flowers Can Help
There are many facilities that can offer radicular pain treatment, but J. Flowers takes an approach that sets us apart.
J. Flowers has extensive experience with many different types of chronic pain issues, including radicular pain. We take a holistic approach that treats the mind, body, and soul and offer a combination of western medicine, integrative nutrition, and sports medicine to ensure our clients achieve optimal health. We provide comprehensive care that includes diagnosis, evaluation, treatment, and aftercare.