Why that strange pain may not be what you think it is

Sometimes, pain in one part of the body can actually be a sign of a problem somewhere quite different.

Pain is designed to help protect our body from harm, and it’s a mechanism that relies on pain receptors and nerves that communicate with the brain.

But it’s a complex system and process – and so sometimes pain in one part of our body is actually warning of a problem somewhere else.

Associate Professor Jason Ivanusic, who teaches anatomy and neuroscience at the University of Melbourne, says this so-called “referred pain” is very common.

What is referred pain?

Referred pain happens because nerves from different parts of the body can converge into the same parts of the nervous system.

So when a signal is sent from one part of the body, the brain can get confused.

“Sometimes a signal from a different part of the body is misinterpreted by the brain and the brain projects pain into an area that may not actually have the problem,” Jason says.

Here’s what pain in one area might mean for another body part.

Arm or jaw pain

A heart attack may appear as discomfort, pain or heaviness in one or both arms, according to the Heart Foundation.

People also describe numbness or tingling. Pain, aching or tightness around the jaw can also indicate a possible heart attack.

“Pain is often not felt in the heart but in the top of the chest wall and the limbs, too,” Jason says.

Leg pain

Pain that shoots down the back of your legs into the feet and toes is often caused by sciatica.

“But it’s not a problem with the legs. It could be due to the compression of some of the nerves as they leave the vertebral column in your lower back,” Jason explains.

Shoulder pain

Pain in the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades can be one of the symptoms of gallstones.

These are hard lumps of digestive fluid that form in the gallbladder and they cause pain when they become stuck in a duct in the gallbladder and cause a blockage.

Other signs are sudden and intense pain in the upper right abdomen or centre of the abdomen and nausea.

Back pain

Like gallstones, the kidneys can develop kidney stones made up of hardened minerals and salts.

If the stone blocks the urinary tract this can cause severe back pain.

It will also be painful to urinate, and pain can radiate to the lower abdomen and groin and come in waves.

Ear pain

A painful ear can be a sign of a dental problem.

“Some nerves that supply the ear canals are also connected to the teeth,” Jason says.

“So, ear pain can be a warning that you have a tooth abscess – an infection caused by bacteria in the nerve and blood vessels of a tooth.”

Belly button pain

If you feel pain around your stomach, particularly around your belly button, it’s not always a sign you’ve eaten too much.

It could be the early signs of appendicitis, says Jason.

“Appendicitis usually presents early on as pain around the belly button,” he says.

“As the appendix becomes more inflamed and grows bigger it impacts on the membranes of the inside of the body wall and then pain is felt in the lower right part of the abdomen.”

Written by Sarah Marinos