The nerves that carry messages to and from your legs come from your
low back. By checking your muscle strength, your reflexes, and your
sensation (feeling), your doctor can tell whether there is pressure on a
nerve root coming from your spinal column. He or she
can often also tell which nerve root is involved.
Muscle strength tests can detect true muscle weakness, which is one
sign of pressure on a nerve root. (Sometimes leg weakness is actually due to
pain, not pressure on a nerve.) Most people who have
herniated discs that cause symptoms also have some
nerve root compression.
Specific muscles receive impulses from specific nerves, so finding
out which muscles are weak shows your doctor where nerve roots are being
See a picture of the
lumbosacral region , from which nerve root compression
Muscle strength tests include:
- Hip flexion. You sit on the edge of the exam
table with your knees bent and feet hanging down. Then you lift your thigh up
off the table while your doctor pushes down on your leg near your knee. (This
test can also be done while you are lying on your back.) If your painful leg is
weaker than the other leg, you may have nerve root compression at the higher
part of your low back, in the area of the last thoracic and the first, second,
and third lumbar vertebrae (T12, L1, L2, L3 region).
- Knee extension. While in the sitting position, you
straighten out your knee while your doctor pushes down on your leg near your
ankle. If your painful leg is weaker than the other leg, you may have nerve
root compression at the second, third, or fourth lumbar vertebrae (L2, L3, or L4
- Ankle dorsiflexion. While you are in the sitting
position, your doctor pushes down on your feet while you try to pull your
ankles upward. If there is weakness in one leg, the ankle will give way to the
downward pressure. This is a sign of possible nerve root compression at the
level of the fifth lumbar vertebra (L4 or L5 region).
- Great toe extension. While you are in the sitting
position, your doctor pushes down on your big toes while you try to extend them
(bend them back toward you). If there is weakness in one leg, its big toe will
give way to the pressure. This is a sign of possible nerve root compression at
the level of the fifth lumbar vertebra (L5 region).
- Plantar flexion power. You stand and rise up on your
toes on both feet and then on each foot separately. Toe raises are difficult,
if not impossible, to do if a particular nerve region is compressed. This is a
sign of possible nerve root compression at the level of the first sacral
vertebra (S1 region).