What is Radiating Pain? Symptoms, Treatments, and Causes

A woman sitting on a bed is holding the right side of her neck with a look of discomfort on her face.
  • Radiating pain refers to pain that travels from one part of your body to another. It is often the first sign of a more serious medical issue.
  • There is a difference between radiating and referred pain.
  • There are many causes of radiating pain, all of which are located either in the legs, back, chest, ribs, or arms.
  • You should see a doctor if the pain becomes more severe, lasts longer than a week, came after an injury or accident, or if you have difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels.
  • Treatment of radiating pain includes anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, injections, and surgical evaluation.

If you've ever experienced radiating pain, you've probably wondered what was causing it and whether you should be concerned. Symptoms such as radiating pain are often the first indication of a more serious medical issue.

In some instances, radiating pain can last for weeks at a time. In others cases, the discomfort can disappear in a matter of days.

This article will discuss what radiating pain is, what causes it, how to identify it, and how to treat it.

What is Radiating Pain?

Radiating pain is pain that spreads from one area of the body to another. Initially confined to a small region, it quickly spreads to larger areas.

For example, a herniated disc might cause pain in the lower back. The sciatic nerve, which travels down your leg, might be the source of this discomfort, so technically your herniated disc will also cause the leg pain.

Radiating pain can be caused by a variety of things, and in some circumstances, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Terms You Should Know

Herniated disc (slipped disc): A problem with one of the rubbery cushions (discs) that sit between the bones (vertebrae) that comprise the spine. Sciatic nerves: These branch from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg.

Radiating Pain vs. Referred Pain

Referred pain differs from radiating pain. Radiating pain travels through the body in waves, while with referred pain, the location of the pain doesn’t change. With radiating pain, the pain is felt in different parts of the body and migrates from where it started.

For example, when a person has a heart attack, they often experience pain in their jaw. Although the jaw is not directly affected by a heart attack, the pain can be felt there nonetheless.

When feeling radiating pain, pay attention to how it spreads throughout the body. When your doctor looks at this, they can figure out the underlying cause of your radiating pain.

Causes of Radiating Pain

When a body part is hurt, nearby nerves send signals to the spinal cord. These signals go to the brain, which recognizes the pain in the area that has been hurt.

However, all the nerves in the body are linked, meaning pain signals can spread — or radiate — through your body.

As the pain moves up and down a neural pathway, it can cause discomfort in other parts of your body that are supplied by that nerve. The result is radiating pain.

Here are some of the most common causes of radiating pain:

Area of body Condition/Cause Description
Legs Sciatica Nerve pain from an injury or irritation to the sciatic nerve, which originates in your buttocks.
Legs Lumbar herniated disc A herniated disc that is located in the lower back.
Legs Piriformis syndrome An uncommon neuromuscular disorder that is caused when the piriformis muscle squeezes against the sciatic nerve.
Legs Spinal stenosis Your spinal cord and nerve roots can be squeezed by a narrowing of the space between the vertebrae.
Legs Bone spurs (also in arms) Smooth, hard bumps of extra bone that form on the ends of bones.
Back Gallstones (also in chest and ribs) Hardened deposits of bile that can form in your gallbladder.
Back Acute pancreatitis A condition where the pancreas becomes swollen over a short period of time.
Back Advanced prostate cancer The cancer has spread from the prostate to other parts of the body.
Chest or ribs Thoracic herniated disc A herniated disc that is located in the middle of the back.
Chest or ribs Peptic ulcers Open sores that develop on the inside lining of your stomach and the upper portion of your small intestine.
Arm Cervical herniated disc A herniated disc that is located in the neck or upper body.
Arm Heart attack When the flow of blood to the heart is blocked.
Terms You Should Know

Sciatic nerves: They branch from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg.

Piriformis muscle: A muscle in the gluteal region of the lower limbs (buttocks).

Bile: A digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.

Gallbladder: A small pouch that sits just under the liver to store bile.

Pancreas: An organ located in the abdomen, which plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into fuel for the body's cells.

A man in a brown t-shirt clutching the left side of his back with both hands. Although his face is not showing in the frame, it's clear he's in pain.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Most of the time, mild radiating pain can go away on its own. However, if you have any of the following symptoms you should contact a doctor immediately:

  • Severe or worsening pain
  • Pain that lasts longer than a week
  • Pain after an injury or accident
  • Difficulty with bladder or bowel control

You should get medical help right away if you think you might be having a heart attack or gallbladder attack or if you think you might have a peptic ulcer.

Treatment for Radiating Pain

There are typically four types of treatment used to treat radiating pain. The severity of the pain will determine whether your doctor will recommend one or more of the following:

Anti-Inflammatory Medication

When it comes to radiating pain, this is often the first line of treatment. As long as you don't show any signs of major muscle weakness, you'll usually be given an anti-inflammatory drug (like ibuprofen) or a steroid dose pack.

If taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine doesn't work, your next step will be to meet with your doctor for a check-up.

Physical Therapy

If the pain doesn't go away after a few weeks, your doctor will start you on physical therapy to help you strengthen and stretch the muscles linked to the nerve.

In the case of a suspected herniated disk, many doctors will recommend:

  • Stretching exercises
  • Back strengthening exercises
  • A McKenzie Method
Key Point: What is a McKenzie Method?

It's also called mechanical diagnosis and therapy. It includes a set of rules for looking at how someone moves and exercises to improve their posture and spinal mobility.

These exercises may help the symptoms go away over time. In most cases, surgery won’t be required to get rid of radiating pain.

A woman holds her knee with tape on it doing physical therapy.


If the pain and other symptoms persist for more than six weeks, your doctor might order X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs).

If the scans show disk herniation or age-related arthritis, your pain management doctor may recommend a spinal injection.

Surgical Evaluation

If spinal injections help for a short time but don't last, a surgical evaluation will be the next step.

At this point, your doctor will examine you and discuss surgical options (including the risks, benefits, and anticipated outcome).

Where Can I Learn More About Radiating Pain?

If your radiating pain is due to a minor condition, stretching and OTC pain relievers may help.

However, if your pain gets worse, doesn’t go away, or is accompanied by unusual symptoms, you should visit a doctor who can diagnose the cause of your pain and work with you to create a treatment plan. You can meet with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner right from your smartphone, laptop, or computer. Visit LifeMD.com to make your first appointment.

Dr. Jonathan Guirguis

Dr. Guirguis attended Nova Southeastern University for medical school and stayed in South Florida to train in Internal Medicine. Born outside Chicago, he slowly made his way down south, settling in Texas with his wife and three children.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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