Disentangling 'sciatica' to understand and characterise somatosensory profiles and potential pain mechanisms

Scand J Pain. 2021 Aug 2;22(1):48-58. doi: 10.1515/sjpain-2021-0058. Print 2022 Jan 27.


Objectives: The study aimed to investigate if patients with lumbar radicular pain only and those with combined lumbar radicular pain + radiculopathy differ in their somatosensory profiles and pain experiences.

Methods: Quantitative sensory testing (QST) was performed in 26 patients (mean age 47 ± 10 years, 10 females) with unilateral leg pain in the L5 or S1 distribution in their main pain area (MPA) and contralateral mirror side, in the relevant foot dermatome on the symptomatic side and in the hand dorsum. Pain experience was captured on the painDETECT.

Results: Eight patients presented with lumbar radicular pain only and 18 patients with combined radicular pain + radiculopathy. Patients with radicular pain only demonstrated widespread loss of function (mechanical detection) bilaterally in the MPA (p<0.003) and hand (p=0.002), increased heat sensitivity in both legs (p<0.019) and cold/heat sensitivity in the hand (p<0.024). QST measurements in the dermatome did not differ compared to HCs and patients with radiculopathy. Patients with lumbar radiculopathy were characterised by a localised loss of function in the symptomatic leg in the MPA (warm, mechanical, vibration detection, mechanical pain threshold, mechanical pain sensitivity p<0.031) and dermatome (mechanical, vibration detection p<0.001), consistent with a nerve root lesion. Pain descriptors did not differ between the two groups with the exception of numbness (p<0.001). Patients with radicular pain did not report symptoms of numbness, while 78% of patients with radiculopathy did.

Conclusions: Distinct differences in somatosensory profiles and pain experiences were demonstrated for each patient group, suggesting differing underlying pain mechanisms.

Keywords: quantitative sensory testing; radicular pain; radiculopathy; sciatica; sensory profiles.