Differentiating Between Hip and Back Pain
by Jan Revella, R.N. 

   Often people go to the doctor seeking help for hip pain. Sometimes, people try to treat it themselves. They are convinced there is something wrong with their hip and the treatments begin. However, one thing is for sure, hip pain is not always as it appears. Hip pain can be a result of a problem in the hip joint itself. However, it can also be a result of a back problem or a soft tissue problem around the hip region.

   Obtaining an accurate diagnosis is the first step to resuming activities and living an active lifestyle. Let's discuss the reasons for confusion and see if we can realize the causes and treatments for both hip and back pain. Some of a patient's misunderstanding about the origin of the pain is due to not understanding hip and back anatomy. Sounds odd but it's true. The hip joint lies just behind the groin area on each side of the body. At the same time, the spine runs from the base of the skull to the tip of the tailbone. The lumbar spine contains specific nerves that can influence the feelings in the region around the hip area.

Pain Originating in the Hip

   If the problem originates in the hip joint itself, common symptoms include groin pain on the affected side, and sometimes down the inner aspect of the thigh in the front of the leg. This pain can move to the knee and sometimes feels like a knee problem instead of a hip problem. Walking worsens the pain and with continued activity, the pain increases. Rest relieves it; however, when hip arthritis becomes severe, you may have pain most of the time. Minimal activity such as slight movements while in bed can worsen the pain. Other conditions such as advanced congenital hip dysplasia or avascular necrosis of the hip can cause these symptoms as well.

   When the pain originates in the hip from arthritis, motion of the hip is often limited. This limitation is often realized when attempting to get out of a chair or bed and standing up. Contrary to hip pain, pain coming from the back may worsen when sitting or lying down, depending on the origin of the back pain itself.

   Sometimes pain on the side of the hip is a result of bursitis. A weak abductor muscle, a leg length discrepancy, overuse, and an underlying early degenerating hip joint can cause bursitis. At times, the origin cannot be determined. Symptoms include pain on the side of the hip with prolonged walking, side lying in bed or when rising from a chair or similar types of movement.

Pain Originating in the Back

   Low back pain commonly is experienced in the back itself. However, due to the complexity of the spinal cord and associated nerves being an intricate part of the low back, pain may and frequently can radiate or travel further down the course of the nerves. This is similar to striking your "funny bone" in the elbow and feeling the sensation in the hand below the elbow.

   Although some of us are familiar with a "pinched nerve" which is associated with sciatic-like pain in the leg, irritation or inflammation of nerves in the low back region can also cause a sensation in the upper leg or hip region. It is important to realize there are many things that can go wrong in the spine. Remember, sciatica is not a diagnosis but, instead, a symptom of an underlying problem. It is possible to feel back-related pain in the hip region and upper leg as well. It depends on the nerves involved and ultimately the actual diagnosis. "Back pain" or "hip pain" is not a diagnosis but simply an explanation of the area of pain. Symptoms are correlated with physical examination and confirmed through x-rays and similar tests. Some back pain is caused from a "ruptured disc". This pain is often experienced in the gluteal region of the body. Many people call this the "hip" region although it is not usually indicative of a hip joint problem. This is actually behind the hip, an important anatomic thought when considering hip pain, rather than in the hip itself.

   A condition related to degeneration of the lower back creating narrowing of the spinal canal or adjacent areas is called "spinal stenosis" and frequently causes pain in the hip region. (For more on spinal stenosis, refer to p.1 of this newsletter). The history of stenosis has to be compared with hip joint pain. Spinal stenosis can cause leg pain while walking as well as fatigue in the legs even when rising from a chair. Stenosis pain is relieved with sitting and will re-occur when walking is resumed.

   There are differences in symptoms between spinal stenosis pain and herniated or ruptured disc pain. A herniated disc often is more painful when sitting and relieved by standing or walking (opposite of stenosis). A herniated disc can cause sciatica (so can stenosis) and can be a result of degenerative changes in the disc. Sciatica will commonly radiate or travel down the backside of the thigh, into the calf and sometimes the foot itself.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

   A thorough history and physical examination is a good start when sorting out symptoms. X-rays will attest to specific bony/cartilage changes but x-rays don't always correlate with the pain. It is possible to have little pain and much damage on the x-rays or visa versa. It is important to treat the patient, not the x-rays alone. Secondly, x-rays of the back can reveal degeneration of the discs or small joints in the spine but the person does well. Contrary, the back may look degenerative and because of the subsequent bone spurring and subsequent symptoms as arthritis progresses, it's important to obtain an MRI to confirm nerve impingements that are suspected. X-rays alone will not show nerve impingement. As you can see, it's important to undergo the history and physical examination and tests that can confirm your diagnosis before treatment begin.

Treatment

   Both types of problems are frequently helped by anti-inflammatory medications particularly in mild to moderate situations. Some types of analgesics can be used intermittently as well. It's important to realize that both problems can be helped significantly by weight loss, proper forms of exercise and conditioning. In fact, back pain can become chronic without a commitment to the appropriate exercises necessary to stabilize and strengthen the spine. Epidural blocks (corticosteroids are injected into the canal of the low back to reduce inflammation and pain) can help several types of back disorders. Using a cane when walking can help both hip and back pain.

   Surgery, whether a hip replacement for hip arthritis or back surgery due to a ruptured disc, vertebral disorders or spinal stenosis, is a last resort for the treatment of the pain. Both surgery of the hip and the back are quite successful. Full evaluation is necessary and conservative measures are always tried first.

   The question of pain in the hip region is not always a simple one and frequently involves specialized evaluation. Once the diagnosis is determined, options are many and should be discussed with you prior to instituting a treatment plan. The purpose of this article is to help to better assess pain, whether it's coming from the back or the hip itself. Remember, there are many options for treatment. Diagnosis is the first step to successful treatment.

© Copyright 2010. Arthritis Education by Professionals, Inc.

 

 
Return to Articles
Powered By TAE Technologies
 

This site and all text, custom graphics, logos and the collection, compilation and assembly thereof, and the overall look and distinctiveness of this site, constitute trade dress and are the exclusive property of Arthritis Education by Professionals, Inc. and are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. The contents of this site may be used for informational purposes and as a shopping resource only. Any other use of such contents without the express written permission of Arthritis Education by Professionals, Inc. is prohibited.

Feeling Good With Arthritis® is a federally registered sales mark of Arthritis Education by Professionals, Inc. Any other trademarks appearing on this site are the property of their respective owners.