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thigh pain | referred pain

What is referred pain in the body?

Written by Dr Steph Klupacs

thigh pain | referred pain

What is referred pain?  

Referred pain is when we feel pain in an area that is far away from the site or cause of the pain  

You know how you hear about the common left shoulder pain with a heart attack? Well, that’s referred pain!  

But the majority are not all serious like that. In fact many referred pains are really quite simple and more in the annoyance category, you just need to know how to read the body symptoms as to where to look for the cause.  Look at the image in this post. It’s one of the most common ones we see, where the pain is in the outer-back thigh, but the issue is in the low back.

Why do we get referred pain?  

Somatic referred pain – areas that are innervated/supplied by the same nerves get sore – so for example, the L3 nerve ending might be irritation in your low back, but you feel pain in your leg  

Somatic referred pain is often described as dull and aching, but hard to pinpoint. It usually affects a wide area, but hard to tell where it starts or stops.  

This is really different from something like sciatica, or direct compression of a nerve root which follows a really distinct pathway, and is often accompanied by symptoms like pins and needles or weakness  

Muscle trigger points can also cause referred pain.

Another type of referred pain can come from trigger points.  

Trigger points are like “knots” in your muscles. They are small parts of the muscle that are super tight, crmaping or spasmed, and are typically very tender to touch or press on.  

Sometimes when we press on these trigger points, they can send pain elsewhere in our body. For example, when we press the muscles at the base of our skull, it can reproduce the feeling of a headache. The regions that each trigger point refers to is relatively predictable, so we can often reproduce the pain you feel in your neck, or shoulder or back just by pressing on a specific trigger point.  

What to do about referred pain?

So the next time you have a pain, and you feel like you’ve tried rubbing it away or stretching the area, if it hasn’t relieved it then maybe you need someone to assess if it’s referred pain. Then they will hopefully identify the casue for you so you can move on!




DAVID J. ALVAREZ, D.O., and PAMELA G. ROCKWELL, D.O., Trigger Points: Diagnosis and Management, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Feb 15;65(4):653-661. 

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