According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population has suffered low-back pain in the past three months. If you are among those Americans with low-back pain, you know how debilitating it can be. Pain can be attributed to several factors and can be accompanied by pain referred to other areas, including your leg.
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Unfortunately, muscle spasm and pain is a common complaint. Spasms can be caused by many factors including muscle overuse, stretch injury, strains, sprains, poor body mechanics and stress. Some causes are self-limiting and usually resolve without treatment other than rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Low-back pain costs Americans at least $50 billion dollars per year, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Back pain is the second most common neurological ailment in the United States; the first is headache.
Low-back pain falls into two types. The first is acute back pain that can result from an injury, such as an auto accident. Acute back pain may also be caused by something as simple as bending over at an odd angle. Acute pain is immediate and noticeable and lasts from a few days to a few weeks. The second type of back pain is known as chronic back pain. The chronic nature of the pain is determined by the amount of time your symptoms linger. Pain lasting longer than three months is the determining factor in labeling your back pain type as chronic.
Your back is comprised of the bones in your spine, nerves, muscles and cartilage. Your spinal column protects your nerves and your muscles protect the spinal column. Your nerves extend below the bottom of the spinal column as well. Because there is no wiggle room in your back, if a muscle is injured and goes into spasm it may swell and press on delicate nerves. The nerve irritation can be felt in your limbs, depending on which nerves are affected. Ligaments can also go into spasm which can produce nerve irritation as well.
When a nerve in your leg is affected due to an injury in your back, the referred pain and other nerve responses are known as a radiculopathy. Your doctor may recommend an electrodiagnostic procedure called an electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction studies and evoked potential (EP). These tests measure the electrical activity in your nerves and muscles and can detect damage. During an EMG, fine needles are inserted into your muscles that measure electric activity transmitted along the nerve. Nerve conduction studies entail electrodes that are placed on your skin over your muscles. The electrodes measure electric activity in the muscles. Evoked potential studies also involve the placement of electrodes on your skin and your scalp. The velocity of the nerve signal transmissions to your brain are measured. The results of these tests helps your doctor determine if the painful symptoms in your leg are related to back injury.
If your symptoms are accompanied by fever, or if you lose control of your bowels or bladder, this can indicate an emergency requiring immediate medical attention. Other symptoms of concern include progressive weakness in your leg and pain in your back when you cough. If you have diabetes or peripheral vascular disease (PVD), you are at higher risk for experiencing pain in your legs. If this occurs, it may be a sign of neuropathy or damage to your nerves based on complications from diabetes or PVD. If this describes your situation, seek medical care immediately.