Root Signature Pain in Dogs: Elbow Problem Or Root Signature?

When your dog becomes lame, the first suspects are muscle or joint issues. Did you know, however, that lameness can have a neurologic cause?

Figuring out whether the problem is orthopedic or neurologic can be challenging.

Root Signature Pain in Dogs: Elbow Problem Or Root Signature?

Jasmine’s story

As soon as Jasmine improved after her neck issues, without any break to speak of, we were dealing with sudden severe front left leg lameness. The day it happened, she didn’t want to put any weight on that leg at all. Her neck and the rest of her seemed fine.

There was no clear indication her lameness could be related to the neck. As well as it wasn’t the first time this happened. The first time Jasmine had acute unexplained lameness on her front left leg was last May. Was this the same thing?

It certainly looked like it.

The past diagnosis

Back then it was diagnosed and treated as arthritis flare-up. All the indicators looked the same. But in the light of the disc injury(?) in December, different questions arose. Could the neck be involved with this also, even though it seemed fine?

Root signature?

Root signature is a term used to describe lameness associated with nerve pain rather than orthopedic problem. It can happen as a result of a problem with any nerve root in the neck.

Further information: Neurologic Causes of Lameness

Is root signature what the problem is? Or a combination of things? That was the question.

Most root signatures are due to nerve root compression and ischemia. This can be due to disc herniation, tumor, anything that produces pressure in the ventrolateral vertebral canal or intervertebral foramen where the nerves from the spinal cord exit to innervate the body. It may not cause any pain at all in the neck and especially if the nerve entrapment is in the upper thoracic T1-T2.

However, it does cause severe pain to the limb that it is innervating. 

Very painful

In humans, it can feel like pins and needles type pain. The pain is most severe on compression of the limb (standing on it or pushing with it) and/or from pulling on the limb. Moving the limb causes little to no pain at all.

First, one to bring it up was Dr. Beatty. With no apparent trauma event, the fact it came and went quickly and then returned, and Jasmine was concerned about her foot (before the event, not after), to him that screamed neurologic to him.

It would be a typical root signature lameness involving the cervical vertebrae and disks.

Acute symptoms of a chronic problem?

I also mentioned root signature because if Jasmine has arthritis in that elbow it is chronic pain, not severe acute pain. The nervous system is accustomed to the chronic pain from arthritis and without additional trauma there would be no reason to all of a sudden be non-weight bearing or even severely lame. It just doesn’t happen that way. If you had said she has been becoming stiffer and stiffer the last couple of weeks and then woke up in the morning not able to use the leg then I would be more of a believer in arthritis in the elbow causing the lameness.

Back May I too thought it was strange that a chronic disease, such as arthritis, could have such an acute onset of pain.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it COULD NOT happen, because it can.

So it happened, that, on the same day, Jasmine’s primary vet started thinking the same – could nerve root pain be the trigger for the events?

If the problem was outside the elbow, though, the whole brace idea would be moot. Meanwhile, Jasmine’s leg looked pretty good. Which theory would that support? I’ve been a nervous wreck, just waiting for another disaster to rear its ugly head.

Veterinary appointment

On Friday she had an appointment with her primary vet.

He poked and prodded Jasmine, observed her gait. Here are his notes:

  • Her left elbow was reluctant to flex.
  • Muscles all over the body were sensitive, just short of in spasm.
  • Nerve function to back left leg was still mildly impaired.
  • Other joints were stable.
  • The neck appeared happy.


The elbow indeed seemed unhappy, which could mean the event was a problem in the elbow, but the root signature could not have been ruled out.


We could, of course, do an MRI, but the level of risk doesn’t seem to warrant the potential benefit at this time.

The risk factors for doing the MRI would encompass:

  • anesthesia complications
  • contrast material adverse reaction
  • further neck manipulation …? (might be possible that what looked like severe joint pain after Jasmine’s last stem cell injections could have been the result of neck position for the procedure if we calculated the neck issues into the equation …?)

We’re not doing the MRI at this time for sure.

Jasmine’s primary vet says the only time it would make sense to do the MRI would be if we wanted to pursue surgery. However, it appears that with surgery, there is only about 5% chance of any improvement of the situation before the surgery. By the time done with scar tissue and the spurs wanting to regrow might be lucky to end up where started. So that just wouldn’t make any sense.

Thermal imaging?

I talked to Veterinary Thermal Imaging, wondering whether this, NON-INVASIVE diagnostic would be of any benefit for Jasmine.

I was told that thermal imaging can help to pinpoint disk issues, but cannot determine if the disc has extruded and then popped back into place, or whether it has more permanently prolapsed.

It might be worth using. One problem is that the thickness of Jasmine’s rough might make it difficult to pinpoint with structures are affected, as it can be quite insulating. It will also not differentiate between muscular spasm and facet joint or disc pathology. If there is a potential elbow pathology, then the neck can spasm as the dog adopts a compensatory stance.

Either way, before we’d try this we have to see whether anybody within reasonable distance has one of these things. Jasmine’s chiropractor was considering getting one, but it did not happen at the end.

IV stem cells?

Meanwhile, we decided that IV stem cells might be helpful in either scenario.

Because Jasmine was on the steroids recently, though, we cannot do this any earlier than 45 days of Jasmine being off the steroids. Among other things, the steroids apparently suppress the signaling and the stem cells wouldn’t know where to go.

We did find, and order, a dog stretcher that makes sense to us.

So at least, when it gets here, we’ll have a contingency. We will continue with the acupuncture and physio. We do have emergency prednisone and Tramadol. I will see if we might be able to get Jasmine more frequent laser treatments.

Final update

Jasmine’s neck problems flared up again and given the problems she was dealing with the front left leg problem became moot.

Related articles:
Why Is My Dog Limping? Causes of Lameness in Dogs—Symptoms To Watch For In Your Dog

Further reading:
Neurologic Causes of Lameness

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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