Pain or discomfort anywhere in the leg can range from a dull
ache to an intense stabbing sensation. Most leg pain occurs due to overuse or
minor injuries. The discomfort often disappears within a short time and can be
eased with home remedies.
In some cases, however, a serious medical condition may be
causing the pain. See your doctor if you’re experiencing severe or persistent leg
pain. Getting a prompt diagnosis and treatment for any underlying conditions may
prevent the pain from getting worse and improve your long-term outlook.
Common causes of leg pain
Some of the more common causes of leg pain are minor or
temporary conditions that your doctor can treat effectively.
A primary cause of leg pain is a muscle cramp or spasm
that’s often known as "a charley horse." A cramp usually triggers sudden,
sharp pain as the leg muscles contract. The tightening muscles often form a
visible, hard lump beneath the skin. There may be some redness and swelling in
the surrounding area.
Muscle fatigue and dehydration may lead to leg cramps,
especially in the calf. Certain medications, including diuretics and statins,
may also cause leg cramps in some people.
Leg pain is also frequently a sign of injury, such as the
- Muscle strain is a common injury that happens when the muscle fibers tear
as a result of overstretching. It often occurs in the larger muscles, such as
the hamstrings, calves, or quadriceps.
- Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon.
Tendons are thick cords that join the muscles to bone. When they become
inflamed, it can be difficult to move the affected joint. Tendinitis often affects
tendons in the hamstrings or near the heel bone.
bursitis happens when the fluid-filled sacs, or bursa, surrounding the knee
joint become inflamed.
- Shin splints cause pain along the inner
edge of the shinbone, or tibia. The injury can occur when the muscles around
the shinbone tear as a result of overuse.
fractures are tiny breaks in the leg bones, particularly those in the shinbone.
Certain medical conditions commonly lead to leg pain. These
- Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries due to a
buildup of fat and cholesterol. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry
oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. When there’s a blockage, it reduces
blood flow to various parts of your body. If the tissues in the leg don’t
receive enough oxygen, it can result in leg pain, particularly in the calves.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms
in a vein located deep inside the body. A blood clot is a clump of blood that’s
in a solid state. DVTs typically form in the lower leg after long periods of
bed rest, causing swelling and cramping pain.
- Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. The condition may cause
swelling, pain, and redness in the affected area. It often affects joints in the
knees and hips.
- Gout is a form of arthritis that
can occur when too much uric acid builds up in the body. It usually causes pain,
swelling, and redness in the feet and lower part of the legs.
- Varicose veins are knotted and enlarged
veins that form when the veins overfill with blood due to incompetent valves.
They usually appear swollen or raised and can be painful. They most often occur
in the calves and ankles.
in the bone or tissues of the leg can cause swelling, redness, or pain in the
damage in the leg may cause numbness, pain, or tingling. It often occurs in the
feet and lower part of the legs as a result of diabetes.
Other causes of leg pain
The following conditions and injuries can also lead to leg
pain, but they’re less common causes:
- A slipped (herniated) disk occurs when one of the
rubbery disks in between the vertebrate slips out of place. The disk can
compress nerves in the spine. This may trigger pain that travels from your spine
to your arms and legs.
- Osgood-Schlatter disease occurs when the tendon that
connects the kneecap to the shinbone becomes strained. It pulls on the cartilage
of tibia where it attaches to the bone. It causes a painful lump to form below
the knee, resulting in tenderness and swelling around the knee. It primarily occurs
in adolescents experiencing growth spurts during puberty.
- Legg-Calve-Perthes disease occurs due to an
interruption of the blood supply to the ball of the hip joint. The lack of
blood supply severely damages the bone and can deform it permanently. These
abnormalities often result in pain, especially around the hip, thigh, or knee. This
primarily occurs during adolescence.
capital femoral epiphysis is a separation of the ball of the hip joint from the
thighbone, causing hip pain. The condition only occurs in children,
particularly those who are overweight.
or benign, tumors can also develop in the thighbone or shinbone.
or cancerous, bone tumors may form in the larger leg bones, such as the thighbone
Treating leg pain at home
You can usually treat leg pain at home if it’s due to cramps
or a minor injury. Try the following home treatments when your leg pain is from
muscle cramps, fatigue, or overuse:
- Rest your leg as much as possible, and elevate
your leg with pillows.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as aspirin
to help ease discomfort as your leg heals.
- Wear compression socks or stockings with
Apply ice to the affected area of your leg at least four
times per day. You can do this even more frequently in the first few days after
the pain appears. You can leave the ice on for as long as 15 minutes at a time.
Take a warm bath and stretch
Take a warm bath, and then gently stretch your muscles. If
you have pain in the lower part of your leg, try pointing and straightening
your toes when sitting or standing. If you have pain in the upper part of your
leg, try to bend over and touch your toes. You can do this while sitting on the
ground or standing up. Ease into each stretch, holding each position for five
to 10 seconds. Stop stretching if your pain gets worse.
When to see your doctor about
It can sometimes be difficult to determine when leg pain
warrants a trip to the doctor or the emergency room. Schedule a doctor’s
appointment if you’re experiencing:
in both legs
veins that are causing discomfort
pain that continues to get worse or persists beyond a few days
Go to the hospital immediately if any of the follow occurs:
have a fever.
have a deep cut on your leg.
leg is red and warm to the touch.
leg is pale and feels cool to the touch.
having difficulty breathing and you have swelling in both legs.
unable to walk or put any weight on your leg.
have a leg injury that occurred along with a pop or grinding noise.
A number of serious conditions and injuries may cause leg
pain. Never ignore leg pain that doesn’t seem to be going away or that’s
accompanied by other symptoms. Doing so could be dangerous. See your doctor if
you’re concerned about your leg pain.
Preventing leg pain
You should always take time to stretch your muscles before
and after exercising to prevent leg pain due to physical activity. It’s also
helpful to eat foods that are high in potassium, such as bananas and chicken, to
help prevent injuries of the leg muscles and tendons.
You can help prevent medical conditions that may cause nerve
damage in the legs by doing the following:
- Exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid smoking.
- Monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure, and
take steps to keep them under control.
- Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink per
day if you’re a woman or two drinks per day if you’re a man.
Talk to your doctor about other ways to prevent the specific
cause of your leg pain.
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Written by: Krista O'Connell and Erica Cirino
on: Apr 13, 2016: William A. Morrison, MD
This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.