The concept of referred pain has been around for over 50 years. It is used to describe the phenomenon of pain experienced at a site nearby or even at a distance from the pain’s origin.
It’s likely you have heard that one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack is pain in the left arm or shoulder. This is a pattern of referred pain. Fortunately, this pattern of symptom description is now well recognized, allowing medical professionals to deliver care to the right place — the heart — instead of the wrong place — the arm!
In the face, mouth and jaw the experience of referred pain is common. Routinely we see patients with tooth pain, gum pain, jaw pain and ear pain when in fact the origin of the pain symptom is coming from elsewhere. Unfortunately, patients choose the doctor they visit based on the symptom location and this can produce a great deal of confusion and at times treatment directed at the wrong place.
At first, the examining doctor has no choice but to look at the site of the pain complaint, but if no findings are uncovered the thinking of the doctor must change and focus on possible sources of referral. When the focus is not changed, treatment is delivered without success leading to patient frustration.
As you can imagine, referred pain is often a difficult and challenging problem for patients and physicians. As a result, our evaluation is always focused on the sources of possible referral, not just on where the symptoms are focused.