Treating Low Back-Related Leg Pain

Low back-related leg pain (LBRLP) is a common condition that drives patients into primary care clinics, including chiropractic offices, but these cases are often complex, and determining the underlying cause can be clinically challenging. Let’s take a look at the current treatment strategies for LBRLP.

To begin with, the patient’s doctor will need to determine if the leg pain is radicular or referred in nature as this will help indicate which structures or soft tissues in the lower back will need to be addressed. The term “radicular” is reserved for the presence of nerve root compression or a pinched nerve root, most commonly caused by a herniated low back disk. Referred leg pain arises from a ligament, joint, or a tear in the outer layer of the disk (which can precede herniation).

Some clinical signs and symptom that support radicular leg pain include a more specific geographic tracing of leg pain that often exceeds the level of the knee affecting the outer foot (S1 nerve), the top of the foot (L5 nerve), or the inside of the foot (L4 nerve). In radicular LBRLP, there may also be neurological loss such as sensory impairment and/or muscle weakness in a specific area or in certain muscles that can help determine the specific nerve(s) involved. Patients often describe referred leg pain as a generalized deep ache or numbness that often stays above the knee. It’s also possible for the patient to have multiple contributing causes for their LBRLP, which can make the diagnostic process more complex.

From a treatment standpoint, studies show a lack of long-term benefits for managing LBRLP with prescription medication, epidural corticosteroid injections, and surgery. However, there is evidence that spinal manipulation—a treatment provided by doctors of chiropractic—is more effective than no treatment, passive modalities, and exercise in managing LBRLP. In fact, a 2019 survey of 1,907 chiropractors revealed that 81% often treat patients with LBRLP.

More recent research suggests combining spinal manipulative therapy with exercise, and patient education may provide even better results for patients with LBRLP. This makes sense as there have been several studies showing that a multimodal management approach for low back conditions such as degenerative joint and/or disk disease, spinal stenosis, and disk herniations is often superior to a single treatment strategy.

Dr. James Sheehan Dr. James Sheehan is an expert in the treatment of neck and back pain.

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