Lumbar Spine Problems Associated With Shooting Leg Pain

Have you ever experienced shooting pains in your legs that felt something like an electric shock? Or have had a sudden numbness or pins-and-needles sensation in your legs that you can’t explain?

These are not uncommon symptoms that can occur for any number of reasons, both in younger and older people. For some, they are merely a nuisance that will eventually go away. In others, however, the pain can be persistent and overwhelming, affecting a person’s ability to walk, sleep, or engage in everyday activities.

While the cause of the pain can originate in the legs, it is more often associated with the lumbar spine, the five vertebrae situated between the pelvis and rib cage.

Lumbar Spine and Shooting Leg Pain

The lumbar spine is the largest segment of the vertebral column which is responsible, in large part, for supporting the upper body and holding you erect. The five vertebrae themselves are designated as L1 at the top proceeding downward to L5 at the bottom.

Due either to injury, deterioration, or progressive disease, the positioning of these vertebrae can sometimes shift. These changes can impact nearby muscles, nerves, and connective tissue, causing them to flex and twist abnormally. Pain is a common symptom of these changes.

Shooting leg pains can often occur when a lumbar vertebra suddenly shifts and places abnormal pressure on a nerve, causing it to misfire. The brain registers these signals as pain which we feel down the nerve line of the leg, often intensely.

Some people describe the pain like an electric shock. Others compare it to having your foot suddenly plunged into a bucket of ice water.

Others may experience a prickly sensation called paresthesia, which is similar to the uncomfortable pain you feel immediately after a sleeping leg awakens. Leg pain can be often accompanied by numbness and weakness.

Associated Conditions

There are a number of conditions that can cause nerves to be pinched or compressed by lumbar vertebrae.

Age and Spinal Stenosis

Deterioration caused by age is a chief cause. In this instance, the progressive breakdown of cartilage and tissue can cause narrowing of the space available for the nerves (a condition called spinal stenosis). Co-occurring conditions like osteoarthritis can further inflame the condition.

Injury

Injury can also impact spinal integrity. While the associated leg pain may only be temporary, it can sometimes persist and even become permanent in some individuals.

Disc Herniation

Disc herniation (also known as a slipped disc) is caused when a tear in the rubbery outer portion of the disc allows some of the jelly-like inner portion of the intervertebral disc to bulge out. Most disc herniations occur at the bottom of the spine at the L4/5 and/or L5/S1 discs.

While the condition may go unnoticed in some, those experiencing symptoms will often complain about lower back pain, numbness, tingling, and general weakness in their legs. Radiating pain is common and typically affects only one side of the body (generally the lower extremity and/or buttocks).

Severe compression of the nerves within the spinal column can result in the loss of bladder control, bowel control, and sexual function which is a surgical emergency.

Sciatica

Sciatica (also known as lumbar radiculopathy) is defined as a pain radiating down the leg from the lower back. Sciatica occurs when the nerve roots of the lumbar spine are pinched, causing referred pain into the leg. The L3, L4, and L5 nerve roots are most commonly associated with these symptoms.

Sciatica can be caused by any number of conditions from a slipped disc and injury to spinal stenosis and infection. Sciatica is often considered an early warning sign of herpes zoster (shingles) infection of a lower extremity. Pregnancy can also cause sciatic pain as the fetus presses directly against the nerve.

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  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: National Institutes of Health. Lower Back Pain Fact Sheet. Bethesda, Maryland: December 2014; NIH Publication No. 15-5161.