Obturator Nerve: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 07, 2022
5 min read

The obturator nerve is a large, multibranched nerve that travels through your pelvis to your inner thigh. This nerve helps you feel sensations like temperature and pain in your lower limbs. It also carries motor signals from your brain to your legs that help you move your hips and thighs. 

The obturator nerve plays an essential role in many bodily functions and movements. Learning about obturator nerve anatomy and protecting this fiber from injury can help you safeguard your mobility.

The obturator nerve is a major nerve located in your pelvis and upper thighs. It belongs to the peripheral nervous system, a network of nerves that link the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. It carries messages about movement and sensation between your brain and your lower limbs. 

The obturator nerve begins in the lumbar plexus, a complex network of neural fibers located in your lower spine. It travels down through your pelvis and into your upper thigh, where it splits into the anterior and posterior branches.  

Interesting facts about the obturator nerve: 

  • The obturator nerve plays an essential role in the movement of your thigh. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to flex or rotate your leg. 
  • The lumbar plexus has seven bundles of nerves, and the obturator nerve is the second most inferior, or lowest, nerve in this network.

The obturator nerve plays an essential role in the body’s peripheral nervous system. This system includes nerves and ganglia, or clusters of nerves located near your spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system works in tandem with the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. Together, the central and peripheral nervous systems carry messages about movement, pain, and sensation from your brain to the rest of your body and vice versa. 

The obturator nerve coordinates movement in your pelvis and thigh. It helps you perform several vital motor functions, like: 

  • Bending and extending your leg from your thigh to your knee
  • Flexing your hip 
  • Moving your thighs together 
  • Rotating your foot and leg
  • Staying balanced while standing upright

This nerve also provides sensory innervation to your hip joint and upper thigh. Thanks in part to this obturator nerve function, you can feel pain, pressure, temperature, touch, and other sensations through your thigh’s skin. 

After traveling through the pelvis, the obturator nerve divides into two branches with different functions: 

Anterior branch. This part of the nerve is responsible for sensation in the skin of your inner and middle thigh. It also stimulates the adductor muscles in your lower leg. 

Posterior branch. This branch helps you move your adductor magnus and adductor brevis, two major muscles located at the front of your thigh. You use these muscles when pulling your thighs together and rotating your hips.

The obturator nerve location spans from your lumbar spine to your thigh, and it resembles a forking river. The top of the nerve is rooted in spinal nerves L2, L3, and L4. These three vertebrae reside near the bottom of your lumber plexus, a bundle of nerves located in your lower spine. 

The obturator nerve travels from the lumbar plexus down through your pelvis to the obturator canal, a passageway that links the pelvis to the thigh. Here, the nerve divides into two parts: the anterior and posterior branches. 

The anterior branch leaves the obturator canal and runs through three muscles in your medial thigh: the adductor longus, gracilis, and adductor brevis. This pathway also turns into cutaneous branches that provide sensation to the skin of the thigh. 

The posterior branch exits your pelvis through the obturator externus, a muscle located in the gluteal region. It travels underneath the adductor magnus muscle and the adductor brevis.

If you develop obturator neuropathy, you may experience these symptoms: 

  • Muscle pain and weakness, especially when you extend your leg or move it from side to side 
  • Leg cramps during physical exercise 
  • Pain extending from the pubic region down to the knee 
  • Paresthesias, or prickling sensations in your groin
  • Persistent aches in your pubic region

If you notice these signs, you may benefit from resting and taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like Advil. If symptoms persist after these home treatments, your doctor may prescribe massage therapy, physical therapy, or a nerve block.

Because your obturator nerve is located deep inside your pelvis and thighs, injuries infrequently occur. However, obturator nerve damage can happen during exercise, surgery, and other events.  

Physical trauma. You may suffer an obturator nerve injury due to trauma caused by: 

  • A car accident 
  • Crush injury to your pelvic region 
  • Childbirth 
  • Sports that involve extensive kicking and sitting, such as biking, football, and horseback riding

Diseases and disorders. Medical conditions can also lead to obturator neuropathy, such as: 

  • Cancer in your bladder, cervix, and other pelvic areas
  • Obturator hernia
  • Nerve entrapment caused by compression in the obturator canal, the fibromuscular canal, or the fascial plane that surrounds the pectineus and adductor brevis muscles 

Surgical procedures. Gynecological procedures and other pelvic surgeries can damage the obturator nerve. Injuries may occur due to damage from surgical instruments or the surgeon’s manipulation of the area, such as: 

  • Heat damage caused by instruments
  • Ligating injuries as the surgeon closes up the surgical site 
  • Partial or total severing of the nerve 
  • Twisting and stretching of the nerve

Some issues that cause obturator nerve damage may be unavoidable, such as cancer and injuries that happen during pelvic surgery. 

However, there are a few simple measures that you can take to help protect your obturator nerve during physical activity, like: 

  • Doing resistance exercises to strengthen your abdominal muscles and pelvis
  • Lowering your bike seat to decrease pressure on your pelvic area
  • Stretching and warming up before engaging in physical activities that involve your thighs, like kicking and horseback riding 
  • Taking a break from exercise if you experience pain in your groin or thighs 

These easy strategies can help you prevent obturator nerve injury and maintain healthy movement. You should also consult your doctor if you suspect that you are experiencing obturator neuropathy.