Cause of Stabbing, Shooting Back Pain: Muscle or Nerve?

Identifying the cause of back pain is often a hard thing to do, given the number of potential causes and the overlap of symptoms associated with them. It is still possible to narrow down your back pain cause with a little research and attention to detail.

Two common types of back pain are muscular and neurological. Muscular back pain can be caused by strain, overuse, spasm, trauma, or damage to a nearby tendon, ligament or myofascia (the connective tissue surrounding muscle). Neurological pain involves obstruction of a nerve.

It is often clear when pain is nerve-related; the signature of nerve pain is a sharp, stabbing sensation that shoots through the body along a nerve’s pathway. Yet it is possible for muscle pain to cause a shooting, stabbing sensation as well.

Nerve Vs. Muscle Pain

If you have stabbing pains that travel, it’s important to determine whether it’s caused by a muscular or nerve problem. Nerve obstruction is not only associated with pain, but with sensations of numbness, tingling and weakness along the nerve’s path. Refer to the map at to see spinal nerve pathways.

On the map, C2-C8 refer to the nerves that exit the spine at the 7 cervical vertebrae in the neck. T1-T12 represent the pathways of nerves leaving the thoracic spine in the upper and mid back. L1-L5 indicate the pathways of nerves exiting the lumbar spine in the lower back. Finally, S1-S5 refer to nerves that exit the sacrum at the base of the spine.

The direction in which a stabbing back pain shoots may indicate whether the cause of pain is nerve-related or muscular. Nerve pain caused by impingement near the spine leads to pain and other symptoms from the site of obstruction downward along the nerve path, not upward. If you have a shooting pain in the upper and mid back, then, this would indicate a muscle pain. On the dermatome map, you’ll observe that nerves in the upper and mid back wrap around the torso rather than traveling up and down.

There are a number of muscles that span large portions of the back. Refer to the picture of back muscles at The latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles along with the deeper erector spinae muscles cover a lot of territory and may be the source of widespread shooting pains. Yet such pain can occur in any other muscle as well.

When a muscle causes shooting pain, it is likely in spasm. A muscle spasm is marked by involuntary contraction. This indicates that the muscle has run out of energy. Muscles rely on a contraction/relaxation cycle to pump nutrients and waste in and out. Oxygen and electrolytes are delivered through the blood to muscles during this cycle, making sure they have energy to work. When a muscle runs out of energy, it goes into defense mode and contracts to prevent itself from being used more. Common causes of spasm are overuse, poor posture and improper bod mechanics. Chronic spasm may be a sign of an electrolyte deficiency in your body and merits medical attention.

It is important to be careful when considering what is causing your back pain; there may be more than one cause. For example, nerve obstruction can interfere with normal muscle signaling and cause spasms nearby. If you have pain or other neurologic symptoms shooting downward beyond the span of a muscle, you should consider the possibility of nerve obstruction.

Educating yourself about the structures of your body and potential causes of pain will equip you to find effective treatment fast. Shooting back pain may be muscular, nerve-related or both.

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