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 you 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. Sometimes, however, the pain can be persistent and overwhelming. They can affect 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. This includes the five vertebrae situated between the pelvis and rib cage. Vertebrae are the bones that form the spinal column.

This article discusses what conditions in the lumbar spine can cause shooting leg pains and why it happens.

Lumbar Spine and Shooting Leg Pain

The lumbar spine is a segment of the vertebral column. It's responsible, in large part, for supporting the upper body and holding you in a standing up position. The five vertebrae are designated as L1 at the top proceeding downward to L5 at the bottom.

The positioning of these vertebrae can sometimes shift, due to injury, degeneration, or progressive disease. These changes can impact nearby nerves and connective tissue, causing pain or weakness.

Shooting leg pains can often occur when a lumbar vertebra suddenly shifts. This 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.

People describe the pain as feeling like:

  • An electric shock
  • Having your foot suddenly plunged into a bucket of ice water
  • A prickly sensation called paresthesia, 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. The progressive breakdown of cartilage and tissue can cause narrowing of the spinal foramen, which is the space available for the nerves. This condition is called foraminal stenosis, and it can pinche on the spinal nerve root. Sometimes the spine narrows, and this is called spinal stenosis.

Co-occurring conditions like osteoarthritis can exacerbate the condition.

Injury

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

A lumbar spine injury that causes severe nerve compression can cause:

  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Diminished sexual function

Disc Herniation

Disc herniation is also known as a slipped disc. A disc is a round rubbery cushion that sits between your vertebrae. 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.

The condition may not always cause symptoms, but the symptoms can include lower back pain, numbness, tingling, and general weakness in the legs. Radiating pain is common and typically affects only one side of the body, generally the lower extremity or buttocks.

Sciatica

Sciatica is defined as pain radiating down the leg from the lower back. Sciatica occurs when the nerve roots that form the sciatic nerve, L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3 are pinched, causing pain in the leg.

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

Summary

Shooting pains in the legs can be caused by various conditions affecting the lumbar spine in the lower back. The vertebrae in the lower back can shift due to injury or conditions such as disc herniation or spinal stenosis. When a vertebra presses on a nerve, it can feel like pain or prickly sensations that run down the leg.

A Word From Verywell

If you're experiencing shooting pains in your legs, check with your healthcare provider. They can help you to pinpoint what's causing the problem. By getting the right diagnosis, you can get a treatment that allows you to return to your normal activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why am I getting shooting pains in my leg?

    Shooting pain in your leg is often caused by problems in the lumbar spine that put pressure on nerves, such as lumbar radiculopathy (a pinched nerve at the lumbar spine level) or sciatica. Sciatica is a common cause of shooting leg pain. Spinal stenosis, a spinal injury, or herniated disc can also cause shooting leg pains. 

  • How is shooting leg pain treated?

    It depends on the cause. Shooting leg pain is often nerve-related and is often treated with medication, chiropractic adjustments, and physical therapy. If conservative treatments fail to bring relief, more invasive procedures, like surgery may be needed.

  • What medications treat shooting leg pain?

    Medications used to treat shooting leg pains include anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, tricyclic antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications. Steroid injections may also help to relieve nerve pain that shoots down your legs. 

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • 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.