05 Apr How to Relieve Nerve Pain in Your Legs
Have you been suffering from sharp, burning pain that radiates down through your leg? Do you experience numbness or tingling in your lower extremities? Does it feel like your leg muscles are becoming progressively weaker?
Most importantly— Are negative symptoms such as these controlling your life?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may have a pinched nerve in your leg. While nerve damage may seem a little bit scary, conservative treatments—even things you can do in the comfort of your own home—can relieve these troublesome symptoms.
First, however, let’s start by taking a closer look at what causes nerve pain in the leg.
What Causes Nerve Pain in the Leg?
You may be surprised to learn that leg pain often originates from the spine. In particular, your spinal column houses your spinal cord—the main superhighway connecting your brain to your body. It’s here that nerve roots exit through openings in the vertebrae to create a vast network that allows us to function normally, innervating our extremities.
Injuries or the aging process may compromise your spine, however. As a result, your nerves may become inflamed or even compressed by nearby anatomy.
Specifically, some of the more common causes of lower body nerve pain include:
Sciatica is the most common form of nerve pain to affect the leg. Be aware, however: Sciatica is not an actual disorder. Instead, it’s a term that doctors use to describe pain that occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, irritated, or inflamed.
The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body. It starts in the lower back (lumbar spine) and exits through the pelvis. From there, the sciatic nerve branches out to the hip joint and through the leg to enable feeling and movement throughout the lower body.
So what causes sciatica?
The most common causes of sciatica include:
- Herniated lumbar discs: The rubbery cushions (known as intervertebral discs) between each of your vertebra can rupture with age or injury, applying pressure to nearby nerves that supply sensation to the legs.
- Degenerative disc disease: As we age, intervertebral discs can lose their shape as they dry out. This can lead to disc herniation and a host of other problems, such as lumbar radiculopathy.
- Spinal stenosis: Arthritis and aging can result in a narrowing of the passageways through which nerves exit the spinal cord. When this happens, nerve impingement may occur.
- Bone spurs: Osteoarthritis may cause an overgrowth of bone on a lumbar vertebra. These bony protrusions can directly apply pressure on the lumbar or sciatic nerves.
- Spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis: Slipping or cracking of the vertebrae can compromise the structure of the spine, leading to pinched nerve pain in the legs.
- Piriformis syndrome: This large muscle near the sciatic nerve can tighten from over- or underuse and cause nerve compression.
Other Causes of Pinched Nerve Pain in the Leg
However, injury or damage to the sciatic nerve is just one form of nerve damage that may be causing your symptoms. Here are a few other conditions that present similar leg symptoms:
- Peripheral Neuropathy: Usually caused by diabetes, this condition involves damage to nerves in the peripheral nervous system—nerves that supply sensation to the feet and legs.
- Peroneal Neuropathy: The peroneal nerve is located near the knee and has a tendency to become compressed as the result of injuries to the knee or hip.
- Lumbosacral Radiculoplexus Neuropathy: Your nerves require a blood supply to stay healthy. Diabetes or inflammation can damage small blood vessels in the legs, reducing the nerve’s blood supply and causing dysfunction.
- Neurogenic Claudication: This is a fancy term that means “nerve pain that originates directly from spinal nerves and affects the legs.” Often, sufferers of neurogenic claudication will experience difficulty walking or report that their legs feel like lead weights.
- Cauda Equina Syndrome: Compression of a group of nerves that extends from the spinal cord in the lower back to the legs and bladder. This syndrome is usually accompanied by loss of bowel or bladder control and requires immediate medical attention to avoid permanent paralysis of the legs.
What Symptoms Are Associated with Nerve Damage?
When a nerve is compressed, it can cause symptoms that extend beyond the damaged area. Nerve pain in the leg, as you’ve learned, can be caused by a variety of factors. That being said, many nerve injuries exhibit similar symptoms.
Typical symptoms include:
- Pain: Including burning, shooting, “electrical”, or radiating pain felt throughout the lower body.
- Pain after certain activities: Prolonged sitting or standing, as well as activities like walking, climbing stairs, or rising out of a chair, may increase pain.
- Numbness or tingling: Loss of sensation in the leg muscles, calf, foot, and/or toes.
- Weakness: Decreased muscle function in the hip, leg, thigh, foot, or toes.
- Foot drop: Difficulty lifting the foot, also known as foot drop.
- Loss of balance: Feeling unstable and more prone to falls.
Since symptoms alone may not determine the cause of your pain, it is essential to obtain an accurate diagnosis prior to starting any new treatments.
Diagnosing Nerve Pain in the Leg
One of the best ways to relieve nerve pain is to find out exactly what is causing it. Symptoms of various nerve conditions often overlap. By knowing exactly what is causing your discomfort, you can take more proactive steps toward pain relief.
But, how do you find out what’s causing your leg pain?
For most individuals, this starts with a trip to your doctor or spine care specialist.
During a consultation, your doctor will inquire into your medical history. This includes reviewing:
- When your pain started
- The events that led up to your pain
- What your pain feels like
- Other symptoms that you’re experiencing
- What makes your symptoms better or worse
- Your current medical conditions
- Any related injuries or physical traumas
- Your lifestyle and working habits
- Your family history of medical conditions
- Any current medications or supplements that you’re taking
Once your medical history is established, your doctor will perform a thorough physical examination. Your doctor will check for pain in different regions of your lower body (back, buttocks, thigh, leg, etc.). In addition, your doctor will note any swelling, skin changes, muscle weakness, or reflex activity through a variety of simple tests.
After the initial consultation, your doctor will have obtained a better idea of why you are experiencing leg pain. That being said, some additional tests and diagnostics may be necessary to achieve an accurate diagnosis.
Diagnostic imaging, such as MRIs, CT scans, or X-rays may confirm or rule out certain conditions. In particular, imaging tests are useful for detecting bone fractures, tumors, herniated discs, bone spurs, and other spinal conditions.
Likewise, your doctor may order a diagnostic nerve block. This test involves the injection of an anesthetic solution near the suspected nerve. If you experience symptom relief after undergoing a nerve block, it can confirm the origin of your pain.
A myelogram may also be a helpful tool in the diagnostic process. Using a special dye, a radiologist can visualize if anything is pressing against your spinal cord, nerve roots, or nerves. This includes ruptured discs or a slipped vertebra.
I’ve Been Diagnosed with Nerve Pain…Now What?
Once you have obtained an accurate diagnosis, your treatment team can start suggesting conservative approaches for pain relief. Unless your symptoms are severe or causing you immediate danger—such as cauda equina syndrome—non-surgical approaches are often recommended.
Here are some things you can do for yourself (with a doctor’s approval) to relieve nerve pain.
Simple stretches can improve your range of motion and spinal flexibility. Stretching can become part of your everyday routine and help you build core strength. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about which stretches might be best for your condition.
It may seem impossible to exercise when you are in pain. But movement can actually help with your symptoms. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it. Skip the heavyweights and marathon training. But a little bit of low-impact exercise every day can strengthen your spine, core, and supportive muscles. In addition, exercise releases the body’s natural pain killers, also known as endorphins.
Get Enough Sleep
The body repairs itself during sleep. When you’re experiencing nerve pain, aim to get 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night. Also, find a sleeping position that doesn’t apply unnecessary pressure to the affected nerve.
Be Mindful of Your Posture
Good posture removes pressure from your spine and promotes spine health. Long hours hunched over a desk or staring at your devices affects your posture. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about proper posture techniques.
Use Heat & Ice Therapy
Alternating between a heating pad and an ice pack can relieve painful symptoms. Ice application, for example, assists in inflammation reduction. Heat, on the other hand, encourages blood flow and promotes healing. When you’re experiencing pain, try using an ice pack for at least 15 minutes, once per hour. Then, follow this with applying a heating pad for 15 minutes, every 2 to 3 hours. To protect your skin, use a barrier between the hot and cold packs.
Try Over-the-Counter Medications
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen function to relieve pain and inflammation. Talk to your doctor about your options and always use medications as directed.
A physical therapist can provide insights into why you are experiencing pain—such as poor posture or a weak core. Your physical therapist will create a plan of action that includes stretching, target exercises, and aerobic activities.
More holistic approaches like yoga, massage, or acupuncture have proven effective for some patients who experience lumbar nerve pain. Spine manipulation by a licensed chiropractor, for example, may also be an effective non-invasive treatment.
With time and proper care, many nerve pain symptoms eventually go away on their own. If you’ve tried these conservative treatments without experiencing relief, it may be time to consult with a specialist for more comprehensive treatment options.
Obtain An Accurate Diagnosis and Plan for Pain Relief
The Injury Care Center wants to help you feel better. Our diverse team has the education and experience to accurately diagnose your nerve pain issues. Once you receive a proper diagnosis, we will tailor a custom-made treatment plan to your individual needs and lifestyle.
Did you know that most spine disorders can be treated without surgery? In fact, we have a team of conservative treatment experts (including physical therapists, pain management specialists, chiropractors, and rehab doctors) ready to help you return to the things you love doing.
Ready to take the next step…without pain? Contact one of our patient advocates today!