The legs are made up of bones, blood vessels, muscles, and other connective tissues that help us move, stand, and maintain balance.
Several things can cause leg pain or leg muscle cramps, including stress and injury. In many cases, leg pain can be managed at home with rest and other at-home and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies.
But sometimes, leg pain can be a sign of an underlying and sometimes serious condition.
This article will cover some of the most common causes of leg pain and how your provider can help diagnose and treat the underlying cause.
We’ll also cover how to prevent certain causes of leg pain and when you should seek attention from a medical provider.
Signs and Symptoms of Leg Pain
Leg pain can present in many different ways. Some common symptoms include:
- Joint pain
- Difficulty walking or moving around
But the exact signs and symptoms of your leg pain will vary depending on the cause of the pain.
Causes and Risk Factors
Different things such as overuse of the leg muscles, sprain, and tendon inflammation can cause leg pain.
Though anyone can get leg pain, certain people are at elevated risk, including:
- Athletes or highly active individuals
- Certain medical conditions, like knee osteoarthritis or deep vein thrombosis (DVT)-blood clots in the vessels of the legs
Muscle spasms and cramps can occur anywhere in the body, but they often occur in the leg.
A leg cramp or muscle spasm is also referred to as a charley horse.
When a charley horse occurs, a muscle in your leg contracts without your control and does not relax, which can cause severe pain.
Charley horses can happen as a result of:
- Overuse or injury to the leg muscle
- Low levels of potassium or calcium
Treating the cramp with massage, rest, and heat will help to relax the muscle and stop the cramp. In some cases, ice applied after the first spasm may also help.
Injuries are another common cause of leg pain.
Types of possible leg injuries include:
- Strain (torn or overstretched muscle)
- Sprain (torn or overstretched ligament)
- Stress fracture (hairline crack in the bone)
- Tendinitis (inflamed tendon)
- Shin splints and exercise-related leg pain (ERLP)
Certain medical conditions can also cause leg pain, including:
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVP)
- Osteomyelitis (infection of the bone)
- Cellulitis (infection of the skin or soft tissue)
- Varicose veins
Other causes of leg pain
Other less common causes of leg pain include:
- Cancer (osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma)
- Legg-Calve-Perthes disease
- Benign tumors or cysts in the leg
- Sciatic nerve pain
- A slipped or herniated disk
- Slipped capital femoral epiphysis
Complications of leg pain
Leg pain can disrupt your quality of life and make it difficult to accomplish everyday activities.
For some people, leg pain can also increase the risk of falling, which can lead to further injury.
If you’re experiencing leg pain that isn’t healing or getting better on its own, it’s important to speak to a medical provider to discuss your treatment options.
Types of Leg Pain
There are different types of leg pain that can occur depending on the underlying cause.
Below are some of the more common types of leg pain.
Leg cramps, also known as a charley horse, are one of the more common types of leg pain. In most cases, the cramping sensation goes away on its own.
Applying gentle massage and heat can also help soothe the cramping. If you experience Charley horses often, reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss a prevention plan.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a common disorder in which narrowed arteries in the legs cause decreased blood flow to the legs and feet.
PAD is caused by atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds and collects in the walls of the arteries, making them narrower. Foot and leg symptoms of PAD include:
People with PAD can experience these symptoms in their feet, calves, or thighs. The symptoms most often appear during walking or exercise.
In most cases, symptoms resolve after several minutes of rest.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition most common in adults over age 60.
It occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein, often affecting the larger veins in the lower leg and thigh on one side of the body. Blood clots can form as a result of bed rest, pregnancy, surgery, cancer, and other factors.
Symptoms of leg pain caused by DVT include:
- Leg swelling (edema)
- Skin that feels warm to the tough
- Changes in leg skin color (redness)
If left untreated, blood clots in the leg can travel to the lungs and other parts of the body.
Fractures and stress fractures
Fractures in the foot or leg can happen as a result of a fall or serious injury and will usually lead to severe bruising, swelling, and/or deformation.
It’s important to seek medical attention if you notice any of these changes after a fall or injury.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bones in the foot or leg, often caused by overuse during physical training. Osteoporosis and other conditions can also cause stress fractures.
The onset of pain with a stress fracture is usually gradual.
However, rest in the early stages can help to decrease pain. Studies show that female athletes are at greater risk for stress fractures than male athletes.
Shin splint is a term used to describe pain in the front of the leg between the knee and the ankle, often as a result of overuse and exercise.
Runners, dancers, gymnasts, and other high-impact athletes are most likely to suffer from shin splints.
- Pain in one or both legs
- Sharp or dull, aching pain
- Pain when you push directly on your shins
- Pain that gets worse after exercise
- Pain that gets better with rest
Rest, stretching, ice, and OTC pain relievers are often the best treatment plan for shin splints.
Popliteus tendinitis also referred to as popliteus tendinopathy or tenosynovitis, is a rare cause of pain around the knee that can occur with overuse.
Pain around the knee can get worse with walking and any kind of movement.
A strain, or pulled muscle, occurs when a muscle is stretched too much and tears.
Strains can be particularly painful and can also cause discoloration, swelling, and/or bruising of the skin.
A hamstring strain is a strain of the hamstring muscle (located in the back of the thigh/upper leg). Athletes are at a higher risk of hamstring strains.
Sciatic nerve pain
Sciatic nerve pain is caused by a slipped or herniated disk in the back that causes sharp pain that can radiate down the leg.
Treatment of leg pain will vary depending on the type of leg pain you have, and its underlying cause, which is why consulting with a medical provider is essential to determining the right course of treatment for your symptoms.
Depending on the type of leg pain you have, several home care strategies can be effective for treating and managing leg pain, including:
- Rest, including elevating your leg if directed by your provider
- OTC pain relievers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen
- Applying ice or heat (depending on your provider’s recommendations)
- Stretching exercises
Sports injury treatment
Treatment for injury-related leg pain may differ from general leg pain treatment recommendations.
Sports injury treatment methods may include:
- Physical therapy
- Applying ice or heat
- Orthotic prescriptions
- Corticosteroid injections
There are some medication options that can help treat certain causes of leg pain, including DVT and PAD. Treatment of DVT can include medications such as heparin, warfarin, or direct anticoagulants.
Treatment of PAD may include medications such as clopidogrel (Plavix), cilostazol, and pain relievers.
Physical therapy can be an important treatment strategy for certain causes of leg pain.
Depending on the severity of your leg pain and underlying cause or injury, physical therapy can last anywhere between several months and several years.
In severe cases, surgery may be the recommended treatment plan for your leg pain.
For example, surgical procedures can help treat severe cases of PAD by rerouting blood supply to the legs.
Preventing Leg Pain
Though preventing leg pain isn’t always possible, there are some things you can do to help prevent certain causes of leg pain:
- Exercise and train safely, including stretching before and after as recommended
- Stay hydrated and drink adequate fluids throughout the day
- Don’t smoke
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes per day
- Eat a balanced diet
When To See a Medical Provider
It’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing severe or prolonged leg pain that doesn’t go away on its own.
Additional symptoms that warrant medical attention include:
- A leg or foot that becomes cool to the touch, pale, blue, or numb
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Numbness or paralysis of the legs
- Legs that are red, hot, and/or swollen
- New sores or ulcers that appear on the legs or feet
- Loss of consciousness
- Other severe symptoms
Speaking with a healthcare provider can help you to identify the underlying cause of your leg pain and which treatment options are right for you.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Charley horse. (2021).
Clinical Care Quick Reference for COVID-19. (2022).
Deep vein thrombosis. (2020).
Exercise Related Leg Pain (ERLP): a Review of The Literature. (2007).
Leg Injuries and Disorders. (2016).
Leg pain. (2021).
Peripheral artery disease - legs. (2020).
Shin splints - self care. (2020).