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Coordinated Health

Definition

Leg pain is a common problem. It can be due to a cramp, injury, or other cause.

Alternative Names

Pain – leg; Aches – leg; Cramps – leg

Causes

Leg pain can be due to a muscle cramp (also called a charley horse). Common causes of cramps include:

  • Dehydration or low amounts of potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium in the blood
  • Medicines (such as diuretics and statins)
  • Muscle fatigue or strain from overuse, too much exercise, or holding a muscle in the same position for a long time

An injury can also cause leg pain from:

  • A torn or overstretched muscle (strain)
  • Hairline crack in the bone (stress fracture)
  • Inflamed tendon (tendinitis)
  • Shin splints (pain in the front of the leg from overuse)

Other common causes of leg pain include:

  • Atherosclerosis that blocks blood flow in the arteries (this type of pain, called claudication, is generally felt when exercising or walking and is relieved by rest)
  • Blood clot (deep vein thrombosis) from long-term bed rest
  • Infection of the bone (osteomyelitis) or skin and soft tissue (cellulitis)
  • Inflammation of the leg joints caused by arthritis or gout
  • Nerve damage common in people with diabetes, smokers, and alcoholics
  • Varicose veins

Less common causes include:

  • Cancerous bone tumors (osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma)
  • Legg-Calve-Perthes disease — poor blood flow to the hip that may stop or slow the normal growth of the leg
  • Noncancerous (benign) tumors or cysts of the femur or tibia (osteoid osteoma)
  • Sciatic nerve pain (radiating pain down the leg) caused by a slipped disk in the back
  • Slipped capital femoral epiphysis — usually seen in boys and overweight children between ages 11 and 15

Home Care

If you have leg pain from cramps or overuse, take these steps first:

  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Elevate your leg.
  • Apply ice for up to 15 minutes. Do this 4 times per day, more often for the first few days.
  • Gently stretch and massage cramping muscles.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Other homecare will depend on the cause of your leg pain.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • The painful leg is swollen or red.
  • You have a fever.
  • Your pain gets worse when you walk or exercise and improves with rest.
  • The leg is black and blue.
  • The leg is cold and pale.
  • You are taking medicines that may be causing leg pain. DO NOT stop taking or change any of your medicines without talking to your health care provider.
  • Self-care steps do not help.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your health care provider will perform a physical and look at your legs, feet, thighs, hips, back, knees, and ankles.

Your health care provider may ask questions such as:

  • Where on the leg is the pain? Is the pain in one or both legs?
  • Is the pain dull and aching or sharp and stabbing? Is the pain severe? Is worse at any time of day?
  • What makes the pain feel worse? Does anything make your pain feel better?
  • Do you have any other symptoms such as numbness, tingling, back pain, or fever?

Your health care provider may recommend physical therapy for some causes of leg pain.

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