Tactile allodynia in patients with lumbar radicular pain (sciatica)

Pain. 2014 Dec;155(12):2551-2559. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2014.09.015. Epub 2014 Sep 19.


We report a novel symptom in many patients with low back pain (LBP) that sheds new light on the underlying pain mechanism. By means of quantitative sensory testing, we compared patients with radicular LBP (sciatica), axial LBP (LBP without radiation into the leg), and healthy controls, searching for cutaneous allodynia in response to weak tactile and cooling stimuli on the leg and low back. Most patients with radicular pain (~60%) reported static and dynamic tactile allodynia, as well as cooling allodynia, on the leg, often extending into the foot. Some also reported allodynia on the low back. In axial LBP, allodynia was almost exclusively on the back. The degree of dynamic tactile allodynia correlated with the degree of background pain. The presence of allodynia suggests that the peripheral nerve generators of background leg and back pain have also induced central sensitization. The distal (foot) location of the allodynia in patients who have it indicates that the nociceptive drive that maintains the central sensitization arises paraspinally (ectopically) in injured ventral ramus afferents; this is not an instance of somatic referred pain. The presence of central sensitization also provides the first cogent account of shooting pain in sciatica as a wave of activity sweeping vectorially across the width of the sensitized dorsal horn. Finally, the results endorse leg allodynia as a pain biomarker in animal research on LBP, which is commonly used but has not been previously validated. In addition to informing the underlying mechanism of LBP, bedside mapping of allodynia might have practical implications for prognosis and treatment.

Social media question: How can you tell whether pain radiating into the leg in a patient with sciatica is neuropathic, ie, due to nerve injury?

Keywords: Central sensitization; Radicular pain; Sciatica; Shooting pain; Tactile allodynia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / diagnosis
  • Hyperalgesia / etiology*
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology*
  • Lumbosacral Region
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Physical Stimulation / adverse effects
  • Sciatica / complications*