The role of tiny nerve sensors

How do we feel pain?

Pain is transmitted by nerve fibers that are tiny and numerous. This network of the smallest nerve fibers makes up the peripheral nerves that can be felt in some areas, such as around the elbow.

These nerves then combine to form even bigger spinal nerves or nerve roots that exit our vertebral bodies and spinal cord. These larger nerves are the ones doctors can see on an MRI.

How do we move our muscles?

We can stand and move our bodies because our nervous system is connected to all sorts of muscles that must activate and respond instantaneously to keep our bodies from losing balance and perform specific tasks. These sensors instantaneously feed information about our muscles’ responses and are modified by our central nervous system to compensate if more effort is needed.

In a chronic pain patient, we believe the microscopic pain sensors become over-excited and send back incorrect information about pain, temperature, vibration, or touch. These improper signals may actually be telling you that your muscles are in pain because they lack flexibility, strength, and endurance.

A pinched muscle can mimic a pinched nerve

The muscles are the farthest extension of the entire nervous system. All of your body’s movements are dependent upon muscles activating in a certain manner. A pinched muscle can be overlooked when doctors tell patients they have sciatica, a loosely-used term for pain radiating from the back down the leg. In addition to a pinched nerve, a pinched muscle from any of the deep buttock and back muscles can also produce that same pain and tingling. This is frequently called referred pain.

Localized pinching sensations in the back or buttock are thought to come from muscle fibers that activate in the direction that you need them to pull. This is why pain occurs during simple mechanical activities like bending or twisting your spine. There is no scan or way to locate these painful muscles with technology. All muscles appear the same on MRIs.

An appropriate physical examination by your physician or physical therapist can determine if your muscles are too stiff, weak, and a possible cause of your pain. People describe this pain as being sharp, dull, aching, and sometimes even constant if these muscles are continually activated and painful during common activities such as sitting, weight-shifting, and moving your spine.

Last reviewed: 
April 2018

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