Pain is a natural and essential sensory system, a means with which to navigate the world and identify dangerous stimuli. Our ability to feel pain and subconsciously develop pain-averse habits keep us safe in many contexts, whether it’s the good sense not to touch a hot stove or learning which garden shrubs cause hives when stepped. Limb pain is a specific type that affects people in many ways daily.
But like any other body function, our ability to feel pain can backfire. Misfiring or damaged nerves, chronically inflamed tissue, auto-immune failures, and recurring injuries are just a few of how the body can turn pain into a debilitating daily challenge, turning our innate warning system into a mental and physical oppressor. Identifying pain can help us determine where it’s coming from and what is causing it, even when there are no apparent external signs of damage or injury.
Some pain can be traced to a single event more quickly than others – if you fall a flight of stairs and break your fall with your wrists, you might sprain or even break them and feel significant pain for a while. On the other hand, some causes of chronic pain are a mystery. You might wake up one day with a stiff neck and no recollection of why or how it began feeling that way.
The pain might continue to radiate down one shoulder and into the fingertips of your right hand, causing you to fumble with the breakfast fork, struggle to tie your shoelaces or feel a tingling and stinging sensation in waves. Such limb pain can be a common sign of a spinal problem – or it could be something entirely different.
Limb Pain as a Symptom
While we’ve made great strides in recognizing and identifying pain conditions that were previously misunderstood or left undiagnosed, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, the process of diagnosing and discovering the source of a person’s mysterious pain can still be a lengthy one. Radiating limb pain doesn’t always mean something’s wrong with your leg or arm, for example.
Unilateral limb pain (pain and weakness in one arm, but not the other) with no immediate sign of injury can be a symptom of a spinal condition. Our nervous system branches out from the spinal cord and brain in the form of spinal nerve roots that originate between gaps in our vertebrae. Different conditions can cause these gaps to narrow or compress the nerves at their roots.
Anything from a tumor, a bone spur, an inflammation, a displaced or swollen spinal disc, or some other form of swelling can cause one-sided pain in the arm, chest, shoulder, or leg. This is called radiculopathy. Radiculopathy is especially common in the lower back, where sciatica is common because it tends to compress the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body.
Sciatic pain is usually felt in one leg, radiating through the hip and buttock and into the calves. Pain in the arm or shoulder, on the other hand, might indicate a problem in the upper back (thoracic) or neck (cervical) areas of the spine. In these cases, limb pain is a sign of a potentially more significant issue that could cause constant pain and even paralysis if left untreated. Not all unilateral limb pain traces back to the spine.
Two other common causes of nontraumatic limb pain are deep vein thrombosis and cellulitis. This type of limb is not caused by a direct injury, such as falling down a flight of stairs. In deep vein thrombosis cases, blood improperly clots in the deep vein of an arm or leg (usually the leg), causing pain, swelling, and significant life-endangering complications.
Cellulitis, on the other hand, is not to be confused with cellulite – it refers to acute bacterial infections in the skin and subcutaneous fat of limb, causing pain. Suppose you show up at a doctor’s office with limb pain, no recollection of an injury or recent event that might be causing the pain, and no history to immediately point towards a recurring problem. In that case, your doctor may schedule several different physical and imaging exams, including:
- Check your vital signs for fever and heart problems.
- Check your skin’s pulse, temperature, and color in the affected or painful area.
- Check for tenderness, crepitation, and tingling sensations.
- Check for a loss of strength or feeling in the limb and other sensory tests.
- Check your blood pressure in the affected limb.
- Run several blood and imaging tests to check for infection (viral or bacterial), signs of inflammation, nerve compression, or bone problems.
- And more.
Acute vs. Chronic Pain
While pain is a helpful warning system, it can also malfunction in a way that is not immediately helpful. For example, if you’re experiencing pain due to ongoing infection, the pain can be a valuable warning to tell you to get a check-up. Chronic pain is any pain that lasts more than 16 weeks. Sometimes, it can continue after the pain’s cause has healed or been addressed. But if your pain presents without any other symptoms, it’s a primary symptom of its own and may even be a sign of a chronic pain condition.
Chronic pain management is the best way to deal with this pain. In some cases, nerves previously damaged by compression, viral infection, or surgery can heal improperly and continue to misfire for months. In much rarer cases, the pain is psychosomatic, meaning it is exacerbated or originates in the mind. In other cases, it’s a combination of both – such as phantom limb pain, where you feel pain in parts of the body that are no longer there after an amputation or due to nerve endings damaged by the amputation.
Treatments for Limb Pain
Treatments for limb pain depend on the condition causing the pain. Some situations require immediate attention, such as viral conditions and arterial conditions. Nerve compression may require close attention if there is a danger of paralysis. Otherwise, treatments might be more conservative, involving rest and ice, movement as prescribed by a physical therapist, and over-the-counter painkillers. Specific symptoms accompanying limb pain require immediate care. These include:
- A high fever
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Sudden and acute extreme pain
- Foul discharge from the area
- Chest pain
- Skin is extremely warm or extremely cold in the affected area
- Systemic toxicity
If you or a loved one are experiencing unexplained limb pain, seeing a medical professional as early as possible can help avoid complications down the road, even if the pain feels insignificant. It could allow you to help discover a problematic bone spur or even a tumor early on or avoid worsening symptoms.