Leg Pain

Is this your symptom?

  • Pain in the leg

Causes

There are many possible causes of leg pain. Some common minor causes are:

  • Muscle overuse
  • Muscle strain
  • Muscle aches that occur with the common cold, the flu, and other viral illnesses.

Often leg pain can be from arthritis in one of the joints of the leg. Arthritis means joint ("arthr") inflammation ("itis"). It can occur in the hip, knee, ankle, foot, and toe joints. Pain is worse with walking or moving the inflamed joint. The most common forms of arthritis are:

  • Gout: This type of arthritis happens to some people because of a build-up of uric acid crystals in the joints. Pain from gout or gouty arthritis comes on suddenly. A person will notice rapid onset of severe pain, redness, and swelling in one joint.
  • Osteoarthritis: This is also called "wear and tear" arthritis. It is the most common type of arthritis. As people get older the cartilage in the joints wears down. This type of arthritis often affects both sides of the body equally. The joints hurt and feel stiff. Osteoarthritis is seen more often after age 50. Nearly everyone will get some degree of wear and tear arthritis as they get older.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: This is a rare type of arthritis. It usually affects both sides of the body. In addition to pain, there can be joint redness, swelling, stiffness, and warmth. Special blood tests are needed to diagnose this type of arthritis.

Other causes of leg pain include:

  • Bursitis
  • Cellulitis (skin infection)
  • Claudication (pain that occurs with walking from poor blood flow)
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in leg)
  • Herpes zoster (shingles)
  • Phantom limb pain (pain in missing part of leg after amputation)
  • Sciatica (buttock and leg pain from a pinched sciatic nerve)
  • Tendinitis

When Should You Seek Medical Help Right Away?

Here are some signs that the leg pain might be serious. You should seek medical help right away if:

  • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
  • Rash or blisters in same area as pain
  • Joint swelling with fever
  • One calf is swollen or painful

Pain Scale

  • None: No pain. Pain score is 0 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Mild: The pain does not keep you from work, school, or other normal activities. Pain score is 1-3 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Moderate: The pain keeps you from working or going to school. It wakes you up from sleep. Pain score is 4-7 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Severe: The pain is very bad. It may be worse than any pain you have had before. It keeps you from doing any normal activities. Pain score is 8-10 on a scale of 0 to 10.

When to Call for Leg Pain

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Severe pain (can't stand or walk)
  • Fever and red area of skin
  • Weakness (loss of strength) in leg or foot of new onset
  • Numbness (loss of feeling) in leg or foot of new onset
  • Thigh, calf, or ankle swelling in only one leg
  • Thigh, calf, or ankle swelling in both legs, but one side is definitely more swollen
  • Prior "blood clot" in leg or lungs (deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism)
  • Family risk of blood clots
  • Recent illness and spent two or more weeks in bed in past month
  • Long distance travel within last month (trip lasting 6 or more hours in a car, bus, plane, or train)
  • Broken hip or leg in past 2 months (needed cast or surgery on leg or ankle)
  • Major surgery in the past two months
  • Cancer treatment in the past two months (or has cancer now)
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Cast on leg or ankle and now pain is worse
  • Looks like a boil, infected sore, or other infected rash
  • Red area of skin that is painful (or tender to touch)
  • Group of small blisters in same area as pain
  • You think you need to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Leg pain keeps you from working or going to school
  • Leg pain lasts more than 7 days
  • Leg pains off and on for weeks or months (are frequent, come and go)
  • Leg numbness (loss of feeling) or tingling (pins and needles feeling) for weeks or months
  • Leg pain occurs after walking a certain distance and goes away with rest
  • Leg pain in shins (front of lower legs) and it occurs with running or jumping exercise (such as jogging, basketball)
  • Swollen joint
  • Limping when walking
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Mild leg pain
  • Caused by strained muscle
  • Caused by overuse from recent vigorous activity (such as aerobics, dancing, jogging, sports, or heavy labor)
  • Caused by muscle cramp(s) in the thigh or calf
  • Caused by known varicose veins (bulging veins in legs look worm-like, pain worse after standing)

Care Advice

Mild Leg Pain

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Leg pain can be caused by many things. Muscle aches can occur with the common cold, the flu, and other viral illnesses. Muscle strain and overuse can cause leg pain. Muscle cramps can cause brief leg pains. Leg pain can also be caused by arthritis, varicose veins, or a pinched nerve in the back (sciatica).
    • The best way to treat leg pain will depend on the exact cause.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. What to Expect:
    • Muscle aches from the common cold, the flu, and other viral illness most often last just 2 to 3 days.
    • Minor muscle strain and overuse should start to get better in a couple days. The pain should go away within one week.
    • Pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis) can be chronic. That is, it can last weeks, months or years. Sometimes the pain can flare up and then get better after a couple days.
    • What to expect in other cases will depend on the cause of pain.
  3. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain
    • Pain keeps you from doing normal activities (such as school, work)
    • Pain lasts more than 7 days
    • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Muscle Strain or Overuse

  1. What You Should Know - Muscle Strain:
    • A muscle strain occurs from over-stretching or tearing a muscle. People often call this a "pulled muscle". This muscle injury can occur while playing a sport or lifting something. Sometimes it can also occur while doing normal activities.
    • People often describe a sharp pain or popping when the muscle strain occurs. The muscle pain worsens when moving the leg.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. What You Should Know - Overuse:
    • Sore muscles are common following vigorous activity (such as running, sports, weight lifting, moving furniture). This can happen when your body is not used to this amount of activity.
    • The muscles often feel achy and sore all over.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  3. Apply a Cold Pack:
    • Apply a cold pack or an ice bag (wrapped in a moist towel) to the area for 20 minutes. Repeat this in 1 hour and then every 4 hours while awake.
    • Do this for the first 48 hours after an injury.
    • This will help decrease pain and swelling.
  4. Apply Heat to the Area:
    • Beginning 48 hours after an injury, apply a warm washcloth or heating pad for 10 minutes 3 times a day.
    • This will help increase blood flow and improve healing.
  5. Hot Shower:
    • If stiffness lasts over 48 hours, relax in a hot shower twice a day.
    • Gently move the leg under the falling water.
  6. Rest vs. Movement:
    • Complete rest should only be used for the first day or two after an injury.
    • Staying active helps muscle healing more than resting does.
    • Continue normal activities as much as your pain permits.
    • Avoid heavy lifting and active sports for 1 to 2 weeks or until the pain and swelling are gone.
  7. What to Expect:
    • Minor muscle strain and overuse should start to get better in a couple days.
    • The pain should go away within one week.
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain
    • Pain keeps you from doing normal activities (such as school, work)
    • Pain lasts more than 7 days
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Muscle Cramps

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Muscle cramps can occur in the calves and thighs.
    • Heat cramps are a type of muscle cramp that happens during exercise on a hot day.
    • You can stop a muscle cramp by stretching the muscle. If you have a heat muscle cramp, you should drink extra fluids and eat something salty.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Stretch the Muscle During an Attack:
    • During attacks, you can break the muscle spasm by stretching the muscle. Stretch the muscle in the opposite direction of how it is being pulled by the spasm.
    • For example, for a calf cramp, pull the foot and toes upwards as far as they will go.
  3. Drink Fluids for Heat Cramps:
    • Drink 1 cup (8 oz; 240 ml) of cold water every 15 minutes for the next 2 hours. Also eat some salty foods (such as potato chips or pretzels).
    • Or, drink a sports - rehydration drink (such as Gatorade or Powerade).
  4. Prevention:
    • Daily exercises that stretch the heel cords may prevent future attacks.
    • Stand with the knees straight. Then, stretch the ankles by leaning forward against a wall.
  5. What to Expect:
    • Muscle cramps usually last 5 to 30 minutes. Once the muscle cramp stops, the muscle returns to normal quickly. The pain should go away completely.
    • If you have frequent muscle cramps, talk with your doctor. Sometimes the doctor can give medicines to help stop the muscle cramps.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Calf swelling or constant leg pain occur
    • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Varicose Veins

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Varicose veins look like bulging ("worm-like") blue blood vessels in the thigh and lower leg.
    • People with varicose veins sometimes have mild achy pain in their legs after a long day of standing or walking. The pain should go away with rest and leg elevation.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Varicose Veins - Treatment:
    • Try to rest and elevate your legs above your heart a couple times each day for 15 minutes.
    • Walking is good for your blood flow. It helps pump the blood out of the veins.
    • Avoid standing in one place for a long time.
    • Wear support hose or stockings.
    • If you are overweight, talk with your doctor about a weight loss program.
  3. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain occurs
    • Calf swelling or constant calf pain occur
    • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Over-The-Counter Pain Medicines

  1. Pain Medicine:
    • You can take one of the following drugs if you have pain: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) pain drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your pain feel better.
    • Acetaminophen is safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  2. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have more questions
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Last Reviewed: 11/23/2017 1:29:43 AM
Last Updated: 5/7/2017 1:36:11 PM

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