Leg pain refers to pain or discomfort anywhere in the leg. It can range from a dull ache to an intense stabbing sensation.
There are many causes of leg pain. However, only some of these are medically serious. Minor discomfort will often disappear within a short time and can be eased or relieved with at-home treatments.
A principle cause of leg pain is a cramp or muscle spasm, often known as a charley horse. Muscle fatigue, dehydration, and some medications—such as diuretics and statins—can all lead to leg cramps.
Leg pain is also frequently a sign of injury, such as:
- muscle strains
- tendonitis (an inflamed tendon)
- shin splints (pain in the lower front of your leg after overuse)
- stress fractures
Certain medical conditions commonly lead to leg pain. These include:
- atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot caused by long periods of bed rest)
- varicose (spider) veins
- the presence of infection in the bone or tissues of the leg
- nerve damage (often as a result of conditions such as diabetes)
The following conditions and injuries can also lead to leg pain. These conditions include:
- slipped disk (in this case, the pain will travel from the back to the leg)
- Osgood Schlatter’s disease (of the growth plate of the tibia in young boys)
- malignant tumors in the bone
- certain medications, such as corticosteroids
- benign tumors or cysts (particularly on your tibia and thigh bone, or femur)
- Legg-Calve-Perthes disease (typically occurs in young boys)
- slipped capital femoral epiphysis (typically occurs in children, in particular those who are overweight)
You can best treat your leg pain when you know its cause.
If you have varicose veins and believe that they are the source of your pain, try elevating the affected leg when you rest. Pantyhose with support may also provide some relief.
Other common causes of leg pain are muscle cramps or muscle fatigue after excessive physical activity. If your pain is the result of too much physical activity, first apply ice to your leg. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this should be done four times a day—or more frequently in the first few days after the pain appears. The ice can be left on for as long as 15 minutes (NIH, 2011).
Rest and elevate the affected leg as much as possible. Stretching and massage are also good at-home treatments for muscle cramps. You may want to take a non-prescription pain reliever, such as aspirin, to further ease your discomfort.
One of the challenges for those who experience leg pain is deciding whether it warrants a trip to the doctor or the emergency room. Schedule a doctor’s appointment if you have:
- worsening pain
- swelling in both legs
- varicose veins that are causing discomfort
- pain upon walking
- leg pain that persists beyond a few days
Seek out medical attention immediately if:
- the leg is red and warm to the touch
- you have a fever
- the leg feels cool to the touch or appears pale
- you are experiencing breathing difficulties in addition to swelling in both legs
- you have a deep cut on your leg
- you are immobile
- you cannot place any weight on your leg
- you sustained an 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 does not seem to be going away, or if it is accompanied by any of the other symptoms mentioned above. Doing so could be dangerous.
For instance, a bone infection (osteomyelitis) is a serious cause of leg pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, if left untreated, this condition can cause (Mayo Clinic, 2010):
- bone death (which may require amputation)
- septic arthritis (inflammation of an infected joint)
- impaired growth in children
It is easiest to prevent leg pain caused by physical activity. Always take time to stretch before and after exercising. The Mayo Clinic recommends eating foods that are high in potassium—such as bananas, chicken, and lima beans—is also a good idea (Mayo Clinic, 2010).
Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control, drink only in moderation, and avoid smoking. If you have diabetes, take steps to manage your condition and work with your doctor to prevent foot pain from developing.