Lower Back Pain When Lifting Your Leg: What You Need To Know

Lower back pain can happen to anyone, from school-aged children to elderly people and everyone in between. Pain in your lower back can occur for many reasons and can have a large range of symptoms, including numbness, tingling, burning, and stinging. In many cases, lower back pain will occur or worsen when you lift one or both of your legs.

Lower back pain can make performing normal daily activities, such as walking and standing, challenging, especially if your pain is persistent. The good news is that most lower back pain can be managed at home and will quickly resolve on its own.

If your lower back pain doesn’t go away on its own or gets worse, seeking medical attention may be necessary. In such cases, a doctor can help you treat and prevent lower back pain when lifting your leg by identifying the cause of your pain, such as a spinal injury or nerve damage.

If you are experiencing lower back pain when lifting one or both of your legs, here's what you should know to find relief as quickly as possible.

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Common causes of lower back pain when lifting your leg

Lower back pain that radiates into your legs could be caused by many factors. While the causes of most back pain that occurs when lifting your leg is minor and will likely resolve on their own, others could be an indicator of more serious medical conditions that contribute to long-lasting symptoms. Here are some of the most common causes of lower back pain and leg pain:

Sciatica

Sciatica is a common condition that causes pain along the path of the sciatic nerve, traveling from your lower back, down your hips and buttocks, and into the back of your leg. For most people, sciatic pain only affects one side of their body. Sciatica can occur for a number of reasons, but it usually develops when the sciatic nerve is compressed by a herniated disc, a bone spur on the spine, or spinal stenosis (which is a condition that causes narrowing of the spine). This can lead to pain, inflammation, and/or numbness in the lower back, buttocks, and/or legs.

Pain caused by sciatica can range from mild and annoying to severe and debilitating. The type of pain can vary from a general ache to a stabbing or burning sensation. In addition to pain radiating from your lower spine and buttocks down the back of your leg, it’s also common to feel numbness, tingling, and/or weakness in your leg or foot. Prolonged sitting, sneezing, or coughing can sometimes make sciatic pain worse.

While sciatica can cause excruciating pain, it usually resolves within a few weeks without surgery. However, in some cases, sciatica could be more severe and persistent, causing some damage to the leg or impacting other organs, in which case, surgery could be needed. Age, being overweight, prolonged sitting, heavy lifting, and diabetes can make you more likely to develop sciatica. To lower your risk of developing sciatica, exercising regularly, maintaining good posture when you sit, and properly lifting heavy items are essential steps.

Lumbar herniated disc

A herniated disc¹, sometimes referred to as a ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when one of the soft discs that sit between the stiff vertebrae that make up your spine is injured. Spinal discs have a soft center, called a nucleus, which is enclosed within a tough exterior, called an annulus. A herniated disc develops when part of the nucleus pushes through a tear in the annulus.

Herniated discs can form in any area of the spine, most commonly in the lower back and the neck and less likely in the middle part. When one forms at the lower part of your spine (also known as the lumbar area), pain, numbness, and/or tingling can radiate down your legs. Herniated discs usually affect one leg and, in some cases, can develop without any symptoms.

Lumbar disc herniation becomes more common as you age and your discs become less flexible and more prone to tearing. It's uncommon for disc herniation to be caused by back injuries or trauma. Obesity, regularly lifting heavy objects, tobacco use, and genetics can make you more likely to develop a herniated disk in your lower back. Because of this, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and avoiding tobacco can help reduce your chances of experiencing a disc herniation.

Arachnoiditis

Arachnoiditis² occurs when one of the membranes enclosing and protecting the spinal cord's nerves, known as the arachnoid, becomes inflamed. Inflammation of the arachnoid can result from a variety of factors, including:

  • Viral or bacterial infection

  • Spinal injury

  • Chemicals

  • Compression of spinal nerves

  • Complications from spinal procedures, including surgery

Arachnoid inflammation can sometimes lead to the formation of scar tissue and adhesions, leading to the spinal nerves pushing together, resulting in:

  • Chronic pain

  • Tingling

  • Numbness

  • Muscle cramps and spasms

  • Burning and/or stinging in your lower back and legs

  • In severe cases, paralysis

Unfortunately, arachnoiditis is often an unpredictable and challenging condition to treat. While surgery may be an option to relieve lower back and leg pain, it typically only provides temporary relief. Most long-term arachnoiditis treatment focuses on alleviating chronic pain and making normal daily functions possible through a combination of:

Piriformis syndrome

Piriformis syndrome³ is a rare neuromuscular condition that occurs when the piriformis muscle - located in the buttocks - pushes against your sciatic nerve. The pressure placed on the sciatic nerve can lead to numbness and pain that radiates from your lower back into your buttocks and legs. It often gets worse after sitting or lying down for long periods or when walking, going upstairs, or running.

Fortunately, treating back and leg pain caused by piriformis syndrome is simple and effective for most people. Treatment could include a combination of:

  • Stretching

  • Massage

  • Physical therapy

  • Exercise (such as swimming)

  • Anti-inflammatory medications

  • Corticosteroid injections

  • Hot and cold treatments

  • In rare cases, surgery 

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis⁴ occurs when there is a narrowing of the spaces within your spine, putting pressure on the nerves that travel throughout your spine; this most commonly occurs in your neck and lower back. While some people with spinal stenosis may not experience any symptoms, others may experience muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, or pain in their lower back, buttocks, and legs; these symptoms tend to get worse over time.

There are two types of spinal stenosis:

Cervical stenosis

This occurs in your spine close to your neck. Symptoms include numbness, weakness, or tingling in your foot, leg, hand, or arm, neck pain, gait and balance issues, and inability to control your bowels and/or bladder.

Lumbar stenosis

This is very common and occurs in your lower spine. Symptoms include numbness, weakness, or tingling in your foot or leg, back pain, and discomfort in your leg(s) when sitting or standing for long periods.

Spinal stenosis is usually caused by an event that narrows the space within your spine, such as:

  • A spinal injury

  • Abnormal growths on your spinal cord, such as a tumor

  • Herniated discs

  • Bone overgrowth

  • Thickening of your spinal ligaments

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage of your bones wears down, resulting in inflammation and discomfort. For some people, osteoarthritis can create bone spurs that press against the nerves in their spine. This most commonly occurs in your neck and lower back, leading to pain and weakness in your arms and legs.

While older people are more likely to develop spinal osteoarthritis, young people can also experience it if they undergo a spinal injury or have a genetic defect. Osteoarthritis is more likely to affect women over the age of 45, men under the age of 45, people who are obese, and those who participate in activities that require repetitive movements of particular joints, such as sports.

Treating osteoarthritis to manage pain and improve your quality of life may include:

  • Losing weight

  • Regular low-impact exercise

  • Hot and cold treatments

  • Massage

  • Acupuncture

  • Pain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

When to see a doctor for lower back pain and leg pain

Experiencing lower back pain when lifting one or both of your legs can be a difficult situation to cope with. The good news is that most lower back pain can be managed with a few lifestyle changes or home remedies and will eventually resolve on its own. If your lower back and leg pain gets worse or doesn't go away over the course of a couple of weeks, it's important to seek medical attention. Diagnosing the cause of your lower back pain is the best way to alleviate discomfort and prevent it from returning.

Some other practical tips to prevent lower back and leg pain from occurring in the future include:

The lowdown

If you have lower back pain that worsens when you lift a leg, you're not alone. While lower back pain is very common and often can't be prevented, it's also important to take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn't grow worse, including seeking medical attention if it does get worse or doesn't go away. Watching your weight, staying active, and not lifting objects that are too heavy for you are helpful tips to keep your lower back strong and pain-free.

  1. Lumbar disc herniation (2017)

  2. Arachnoiditis information page | NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

  3. Piriformis syndrome information page | NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

  4. Lumbar spinal stenosis | Johns Hopkins Medicine

Have you considered clinical trials for Lower back pain?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Lower back pain, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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