My father and father-in-law each had a leg amputated, quite some time ago. Months later, well after the amputations healed, both complained of severe pain in their foot. But neither had a foot. The pain was called “referred pain” and my wife and I dismissed it as being “in their head.” In fact, the pain was a result of the nerves that headed down that way being stimulated quite unpleasantly and was very, very real. Excruciatingly real. But I didn’t really know that then.

I know it now having just experienced it myself, thankfully not as a result of losing a leg. I had an injection in the facet of my cervical spine at level C2. The doc inserted the needle, fairly painlessly, and then administered the steroid. The pressure I felt at the injection area was expected and uncomfortable. But it was tolerable. What got me, and what freaked me out, was the real pain I felt about 6 inches higher than the injection site, at the side of my head above my ear. I was scared. I wondered if my brain was being affected. I called out to the doc, informing her of this pain. Informing might not express the fear I had. It felt as if she was pressing her thumb against the side of my head. But this doc was super. She immediately calmed me down, reminding me to breathe into the pain, and mostly easing my concern by stating emphatically that it was referred pain. I can’t tell you how weird it felt. Here I was lying on a table with a needle in my spine, with real, sharp pain coming from the side of my head. And then it went away, just like the doc told me it would.

A few minutes later she was injecting level C5, and this time I felt a sharp stabbing in the middle of my back and under my shoulder blade. Again I informed my doc, but this time with considerably less affect. I knew, and she assured me again that this was referred pain.

Many caregivers deal with people who either have lost legs or arms, often a result of diabetes, or have nerve-related disorders. Nerves are complicated things in many ways. You may have a sore leg or foot, but the root of the pain is in your back. Pressing strategic spots along the route of the nerve often has the feeling of easing the pain, even more than pressing the spot in your back where the nerve root exits the spine. Maybe that’s how acupuncture works. I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve pressed on places and the pain I felt elsewhere eased. So there’s something to this.

I hope you never have to experience it yourself. And the next time you are with someone complaining about pain you absolutely know is not coming from that spot, understand that it’s referred pain. And be sympathetic and empathetic. It’s very real, a very odd sensation, and very painful.