Radiating lower back pain quiz
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A comprehensive guide on pain that radiates in the lower back and hip that can help you diagnose the cause of your pain and know—right now—if you need to get help!
16 most common causes
Severe pain always gets your attention and keeps it there, making you wonder if there is something worrisome that is wrong.
Back pain and outer hip pain area can be especially troublesome, causing you pain when you move, walk, and even when you sleep. Sciatic nerve pain is especially troubling, causing pain in the butt – literally – and shooting pain in the leg that begins in the mid buttock and runs down the back of the leg down to the ankle.
We've put together a handy guide that will help you pinpoint the exact cause of your pain and know how serious—or mild, your condition is and to know if you need to get help immediately or see a doctor at your convenience.
If you are concerned that the cause of your radiating back/hip/leg pain might be something serious, check the more serious possible causes of your pain below to see what doctors say about when to worry about radiating hip and back pain.
You can also consult our handy back pain quiz, which will help you use your symptoms to diagnose possible causes for your pain.
Is radiating lower back and hip pain dangerous?
Most back pain is harmless – caused by sleeping in an awkward position, stretched muscles, overexertion, sitting down too long or falling on the ischial tuberosity (the bones of the butt that you sit on), or minor hip injuries caused by twisting a certain way during sports like volleyball. Many injuries arise simply from improper form during exercise, sports injuries, or strains.
But there are some pretty serious causes for back and hip pain as well. Lower back pain, in particular, can be a sign of various serious conditions such as advanced kidney infections or a condition called interstitial cystitis, which can cause inflammation of the tissues of the bladder. Sciatica causes lower back pain, pain in the back of the knee, pain in right buttock cheek, unilateral (one-sided) pain, thigh pain, pain behind the knee and calf, and muscle weakness in legs as well.
Outer hip pain and lateral hip pain, though typically not cause for alarm (as the hip is not sitting near any major organs like the heart, lungs, kidneys, or liver), can be a sign of a serious bone condition, such as arthritis in the back, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or tendonitis but can also indicate a more serious bone condition like a fracture, labral tear, or conditions such as snapping hip syndrome or osteonecrosis.
If you suffer with hip pain, this can be especially hard, as every movement we make, it seems, utilizes the hip in some way. Often, hip pain presents as dislocated hip symptoms because the hip pops when you move. This can be especially frightening, making one think the hip is broken. When one experiences hip pain running all down the right side of the body, with lower back pain in the right side above the hip area-- combined with pain that runs down the back of the leg, or upper thigh pain when walking, you may have sciatica, a condition caused by a compression of the sciatic nerve.
The sciatic nerve is a long nerve that runs all the down both sides of the body, beginning at the bottom two vertebra of the back, through the hip area, and all the way down the legs. The pain is usually unilateral (one-sided) with this disorder.
Sciatica is often debilitating, causing significant pain and discomfort that makes working, lying down, and sleeping difficult, as it's nearly impossible to find a way to sleep where you're not pressing upon the long sciatic nerve in some way.
We'll describe sciatica as one possible cause for different types of pain and other low, medium, and high risk causes of back and hip pain that will help you diagnose your condition fast and know exactly what kind of help to seek.
What is "radiating" pain?
Radiating pain is pain that "radiates" from one area of the body to other areas of the body. When pain in one area of the body causes pain in other areas, this is known as "referred pain." In fact, radiating lower back and hip pain can cause pain in all kinds of places near these areas like
- Thigh muscle pain
- Pain back of the knee
- Knee pain at night
- Outer thigh pain
- Front thigh pain
- Pain in the upper thigh
- Numbing of nerves in leg
- Hip and groin pain
- Back of thigh pain
- Pain in the back of leg behind the knee
- Pain in one side side
- Pain in the calf
- Pain in back of the knee
- Hip and groin pain
- Sharp pain in the toes
- Lower calf pain
Note your symptoms from the list above and use these to learn your diagnosis with our helpful descriptions of symptoms, possible causes, and when you should get to a doctor or emergency room to know how to treat your injury.
Five categories of radiating lower back pain
For your convenience, we've divided these causes into five categories as follows.
- Low risk: This can be easily managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medications or by avoiding the movement/stressor causing your pain.
- Low-medium risk: Usually managed as an outpatient by your doctor with prescription medication.
- Medium risk: May require a visit to your doctor or hospitalization. Prescription medication may be necessary.
- Medium-high risk: Hospitalization or urgent intervention. Although not life-threatening get help immediately of some kind.
- High risk: Serious and potentially lethal complications possible; emergent intervention needed; Intensive Care Unit (ICU) care often needed.
Low risk causes of radiating back or hip pain
This can be easily managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medications or by avoiding the movement/stressor causing your pain.
1. Piriformis syndrome
Piriformis syndrome is a type of neurological injury that is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve. The piriformis muscle sits deep within the buttock, behind the gluteus maximus. It starts at the lower spine and connects to the femur muscle. This nerve can become compressed from swelling of the piriformis muscle due to injury or muscle spasms or inflammation. Piriformis syndrome causes symptoms including pain in the back of the thigh, pain in the back of knee, buttock pain, pain in the calf, pain in sciatic nerve branches (pain in the nerves of leg and the buttocks, then), shooting pain in the legs, and hip pain after sitting.
Piriformis syndrome is not considered a serious injury—so RICE is in order for pain caused by triggers, like sitting too long. RICE is Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Also, see a primary care doctor or neurologist (nerve specialist), who can recommend physical therapy exercises and exercises for hip pain and other specific types of pain that will help you feel better. Also, a physican therapist can suggest ways exercises that provide pinched nerve relief, as nerve pain relief is what is primarily needed here.
2. Hamstring muscle strain
Often, a pulled or strained hamstring muscle can cause radiating lower back pain, and pain in the butt area as well. So, often, if you exercise a lot and are suddenly telling your friends, "My butt hurts a lot when I exercise it's likely because of a pulled hamstring. Often, a pulled hamstring can cause referred pain, such as upper thigh pain or upper calf pain and pain in the back of knee area as well. Symptoms of a pulled hamstring include severe pain during exercise and tenderness, pain in thigh muscles, sharp front thigh pain, and tenderness and bruising in the thigh area. The best pain reliever for hamstring pain is to use the RICE method explained above and to do stretches that relax the muscles of the thigh.
3. Back muscle strains
If you've been working out hard, playing football or other sports, or moving a lot of heavy furniture and are suddenly suffering with radiating lower back pain, chances are you have pulled muscles or strained muscles in the back. Often, strained muscles will cause a burning sensation in the lower back a feeling of having limited movement ability. Doctors prefer to limit prescribing of opiate pain medications and may give you an alternative medication with less risk of becoming dependent.
Arthritis is a common cause of radiating lower back pain. Symptoms include back pain that fluctuates, coming and going throughout the day and night and numbness in the neck area, as well as stiffness and lack of mobility. Recommended treatment for arthritis of the back includes heat, ice, rest, exercising and stretches, and over the counter anti-inflammatories. In severe cases, patients seek surgery but sometimes, surgery does more harm than good.
Low-medium risk causes of radiating back or hip pain
Usually managed as an outpatient by your doctor with prescription medication.
5. A Pinched Nerve
A pinched nerve in the hip or back can cause radiating lower back and hip pain. If you wonder what does nerve pain feel like – it often involves severe pain and numbness that may be referred from other areas of the body. For example, a pinched nerve in the upper back can cause numbness in the fingers. But if you're suffering with a pinched nerve—your main questions are probably ones of how to fix a pinched nerve, how long does a pinched nerve last, and how do you get pinched nerve relief? Often, pinched nerves are due to inflammation due to muscle tears, injuries, or pulled muscles. Sometimes, scar tissue from old injuries begins to accumulate and press on nerves. The best treatment for pinched nerves is often rest. But medications such as glucocorticoid injections and oral NSAIDs may help. For patients whose radicular pain has not improved with conservative treatment over six weeks and who want nonsurgical treatment, epidural injection of glucocorticoids may be reasonable.
6. Lumbosacral spinal stenosis
With lumbar stenosis nerves in the spinal cord and lower back become compressed. This type of injury can cause many of the symptoms of sciatica—including numbness and tingling in the legs and pain in the buttocks. Possible treatments include a sciatic nerve block, steroid injections, opioid pain medications, physical therapy, and rest. However, the use of epidural steroid injections is not supported by limited amount of available evidence.
7. Diabetic amyotrophy
The more common name for diabetic amyotrophy is diabetic neuropathy. It is a condition caused by advanced diabetes mellitus which affects the nerves in the legs, feet, hips, and buttocks. Symptoms include a wasting of the muscles of the legs as well as weakness of the leg muscles and severe, chronic pain in the buttocks, legs, and feet. Treatment includes monitoring blood glucose and keeping blood sugars well controlled as well as physical therapy and rest.
8. Lumbosacral plexopathy
Lumbosacral plexopathy, more commonly called diabetic lumbosacral plexopathy is a condition caused by advanced diabetes, in which patients begin suffering with debilitating pain in the hips, thighs, and legs. With lumbosacral plexopathy there is typically a wasting of the leg muscles asymmetrically. This condition can affect individuals who have both type I or II diabetes. Treatment includes controlling blood glucose levels, and chronic neuropathic pain management achieved through anticonvulsant medications (such as gabapentin for back pain) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (such as duloxetine).
9. Mononeuropathies of the leg (eg, lesion of the femoral/sciatic/peroneal/tibal nerve)
Mononeuropathies can affect nerves in the legs, arms, or other parts of the body. Mononeuropathy means a single nerve or nerve group has been damaged, for example, by a lesion that has developed along a nerve or group of nerves. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a good example of a mononeuropathy, in this case, affecting the wrist area. With mononeuropathy symptoms may be sudden (acute) or may develop slowly (chronic). Some of the more common mononeuropathies are
- femoral neuropathy (affecting the nerves of the leg/femur)
- sciatic nerve dysfunction (affecting the sciatic nerve)
- peroneal neuropathy (a branch of the sciatic nerve which affects the toes and foot).
- tibial neuropathy (the tibial nerve, affecting the calf and foot).
Symptoms of the neuropathies above would include burning sensation in leg areas where these nerves are housed as well as lack of coordination of these leg muscles. Other symptoms include muscle wasting, pain, and twitching, cramps, and spasms in these nerves. Treatment focuses on isolating the underlying cause of the nerve disorder and addressing it using medications such as injected glucocorticoids and/or physical
10. Ankylosing spondylitis
Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis that specifically affects the spine. Ankylosing spondylitis causes a severe inflammation of the spinal vertebra that can cause debilitating pain throughout the back region. This condition can cause stiffness and pain not only in the spine but also inflammation, pain and stiffness in the ribs, shoulders, ribcage, hands, and feet as well. Symptoms include a dull pain in the lower back and buttocks, stiffness and lack of mobility in the hips, back, and legs, loss of appetite, fever, and general malaise. Treatment includes physical therapy, medication, hot and cold therapy, and exercises that reinforce good posture practices.
11. Greater trochanteric bursitis
Trochanteric bursitis is a condition which causes pain in the hip region. Trochanteric bursitis is inflammation of the bursa at the outside area of the hip, which is called the greater trochanter region. When this bursa becomes irritated or inflamed, it causes severe pain in the hip area. Treatment may include stretches for hip pain, NSAIDs and anti-inflammatory medications, opiate pain medications, and physical therapy.
12. Greater trochanteric pain syndrome
Greater trochanteric pain syndrome describes pain that is felt along the outer hip area. Causes include sports injury, muscle tears, and injury due to motor vehicle accidents. The pain is caused by a combination of inflammation in two distinct areas: the bursa of the hip and pain in the buttock (gluteal muscles). Pain may also be caused by tendinitis of the hip abductor muscles. Symptoms of greater trochanteric pain syndrome include hip pain at night lying on side, dislocated hip symptoms, and hip muscle weakness. Hip pain relief can be sought through anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and stretches for hip pain.
13. Ischiofemoral impingement
Ischiofemoral Impingement is a common but widely unrecognized cause of hip and back pain. It is caused by a narrowing of the space between the pelvic bone and femur bone, which pinches soft tissues between these boney protrusions. Symptoms of ischiofemoral impingement include front hip pain or feeling of stretched muscles in the hip or hip tendonitis, pain in the hip socket, hip pain at night lying on side, and a feeling as if there is a hip out of place. Treatment for ischiofemoral impingement includes rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, and physical therapy aimed at strengthening the gluteal muscles so the patient can better control the pelvis.
14. Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
The sacroiliac joint connects the lower spine to the pelvis and any injury or strain to this area can cause a lot of back, hip, groin, and sciatic pain. Sacroiliac joint dysfunction (SJD) can cause not only radiating lower back pain but can also severe pain in the hip area including hip pain at night when sleeping and hip pain when sitting. Often the pain resembles that of a hip injury it is so severe. SJD can also cause severe pain in the groin area. Women may also notice pain running along the distribution of the sciatic nerve. Treatment for sacroiliac joint dysfunction includes rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and sciatic nerve massage.
Medium risk causes of radiating lower back or hip pain
May require a visit to your doctor or hospitalization. Prescription medication may be necessary.
15. Herniated disc
A herniated disc in the back cancause sciatic like symptoms of pain that radiates from the lower back and down into the legs and calves. It can also cause pain in the butt and tail of the spine and can cause pain running down the legs and numbness in one leg. Typical symptoms include feelings of muscle weakness in the legs, sciatic nerve pain, pain in the back leg muscles, tingling in the nerves of the leg, and pain behind the knees. Treatments include ice and heat therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, pain medications, exercise, physical therapy, steroids to decrease inflammation, and sometimes surgery.
16. Vertebral compression fracture
A vertebral compression fracture in the spine occurs when one or more vertebra become smashed or compressed. This injury is typical in individuals with osteoporosis and the elderly and can be caused by severe trauma to the back as well, such as in a car accident or following a fall. Symptoms include a sudden popping sound in the back and pain in the back. Treatment may include rest, wearing a back brace, or procedures such as vertebroplasty.
17. Ischial apophysis avulsion
An ischial apophysis avulsion is an injury to the sitting bone where the hamstring muscle meets the bony protrusion of the sitting bone or ischial tuberosity. An avulsion is an injury in which movement or injury results in a violent and sudden contraction of the hamstring which pulls a piece of the sitting bone with it. This injury typically affects young athletes, aged 13 to 25 years. Symptoms include ischial tuberosity pain, swelling and pain in the thigh area, muscle spasms, and muscle weakness in the legs. To heal the injury, extended rest and massage are typically in order as well as stretching exercises and gait work.
18. Gluteal muscle tear or avulsion
The gluteus medius is a muscle that sits on the outside of the hip area. This muscle is used for standing upright and walking. When injured, these muscles will cause a limp. If these muscles are torn, it can cause severe pain when walking, sitting, or sleeping. Treatment usually involves rest, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery to repair the torn muscle, if no other treatments bring relief from pain.
19. Iliac crest apophysis avulsion
Avulsion fractures of the apophyses of the pelvis are rare injuries. This injury occurs mainly in young persons, between the ages of 8 and 14, before they've fully grown. That is because fusion of these bones does not occur until between the ages of 15 and 17 years. The cause is typically a contraction of muscles during extreme sports activity. Treatment includes rest and physical therapy as well as pain medications.
Medium-high risk causes of radiating lower back or hip pain
20. Spinal epidural abscess
The space between the spine and the skin that can become infected by bacteria on rare occasions, causing a spinal epidural. This leads to the accumulation of pus in the spine that can put pressure on nerves and bones, causing great pain. A spinal epidural abscess is a rare but serious condition that can cause spinal pain, radiating lower back pain, and pain that runs down one leg. Spinal epidural abscesses can be caused by a wide range of infections such as skin infections, blood stream infections or urinary tract infections. Spinal epidural abscesses can develop after spinal surgery or epidural catheters used to treat post-operative pain. Symptoms include lower back pain when lying down, radiating back pain, hip pain, tingling in the lower extremities, nausea, fever and vomiting. Treatment includes antibiotics, analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and often drainage and surgery.
Discitis is an infection in the discs of a spine. Discitis can be caused by bacterial or viral infection. Symptoms include unbearable, severe pain in the back, fever, chills, and unexplained weight loss. Discitis is typically treated with rest, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
The most common symptom of a spinal tumor or malignancy is radiating back pain that worsens at night or upon waking. Symptoms include shooting pain that runs down the legs and back and pain when moving. Treatments include chemotherapy and/or surgical removal of the tumor.
High risk causes of radiating lower back or hip pain
Serious and potentially lethal complications possible; emergent intervention needed; Intensive Care Unit (ICU) care often needed.
23. Cauda equina syndrome
Although cauda equine syndrome is a rare condition—it is one that can cause permanent loss of movement in the lower body (paralysis) and permanent incontinence if not caught quickly. Cauda equine affects the leg nerves in such as way as to cause feeling of loss of control of the muscles in the leg. Cauda equina syndrome (Latin for Horses' Tail syndrome) is a condition caused by compression of the nerves at the base of the spine in the lumbosacral region of the spinal cord.
Cauda equina syndrome can be causes by spinal birth defects in children or, in adults, falls, inflammation, malignant tumors, injuries, or, and this is the most prevalent cause—a ruptured disc in the lumbar region of the spine. Symptoms of cauda equina include radiating pain in the lower back, pain and numbness in the legs and lower back, weakness in the lower body, loss of sexual function, and loss of bladder control. Another prominent symptom is upper leg pain, sharp pain in the thigh, loss of sensation in the upper leg muscles, and inner thigh pain. It is critical to seek immediate medical care and often including a neurosurgery consultation,
24. Kidney disease, Kidney failure, advanced kidney infection
Kidney pain, kidney stones, kidney failure, and advanced kidney infections can cause radiating lower back pain, especially pain that affects the lowest ribs in the back and higher buttock area. Kidney issues can also cause pain in the groin area and difficulty urinating. Groin pain in women, especially pregnant women, is a special concern and the patient should be taken to the ER immediately. If you think a kidney issue is causing your back pain, get to an ER—because once a kidney issue is advanced enough to cause back pain, it is usually quite serious.
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