What is leg pain?
Leg pain is any type of pain or discomfort in the leg, from the hip joint to the heels. Leg pain is a fairly common complaint. Your legs are made up of joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels all of which are subject to injury, infection or other conditions that can cause leg pain.
Leg pain may last briefly or be constant, and affect your entire leg or only a particular area. Your pain may feel achy, piercing or tingling. Pain-like sensations often described as pins-and-needles, prickling, or burning sensations are called paresthesias. Leg pain may be simply irritating and uncomfortable, or so debilitating that you cannot put weight on your leg or walk.
Leg pain can arise from a variety of conditions ranging from accidental trauma to nerve conditions. In the absence of trauma or other symptoms, leg pain is commonly caused by a muscle cramp, also called a “charley horse.” In some cases, leg pain can originate in another part of the body such as the back. This type of leg pain is called referred leg pain. If you are experiencing other symptoms along with your leg pain, be sure to tell your health care provider. This information will help your doctor determine a diagnosis.
Leg pain may also be a symptom of deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg), which is a serious and life-threatening condition. The blood clot in the leg can break loose and cause a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or even stroke. Seek immediate emergency medical care if you are experiencing leg pain after mild exercise or exertion, or if you are experiencing pain, swelling, redness, and warmth in the calf.
Leg pain that originates in the lumbar area and travels down the buttocks, accompanied by loss of bladder or bowel control, is a sign of a pinched nerve. This serious condition should be evaluated as soon as possible in an emergency medical setting. If your leg pain is persistent or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.
What causes leg pain?
Infectious diseases, blood circulation problems, and neurological conditions can affect the leg. However, most leg pain is due to overuse, injury, and age-related wear and tear on the muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments of the leg, including the hip, knee and ankle. Usually these conditions are not serious, and you can largely prevent and treat overuse and injury problems with self-care measures and lifestyle changes. For example, proper rest in between periods of exertion and abstaining from extreme sports without proper conditioning are two practical methods of avoiding leg trauma.
Leg pain may arise from conditions that can be alleviated by self-care measures or by following your health care provider’s treatment plan.
Injury-related causes of leg pain
Leg pain may arise from injuries including:
Hairline crack or stress fracture
Muscle cramp (charley horse) commonly caused by dehydration or overuse
Traumatic injury (Achilles tendon rupture, torn meniscus)
Degenerative, inflammatory and autoimmune–related causes of leg pain
Leg pain can also be caused by the deterioration of the joint structure, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune diseases, such as:
Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
Gout (type of arthritis)
Tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon)
Other causes of joint pain
Leg pain may be a symptom of more obscure or rare conditions that are not immediately evident. These include:
Bone tumor (malignant or benign)
Medications, such as corticosteroids or allopurinol, which is used to treat gout
Legg-Calve-Perthes disease (rare, degenerative hip bone disease)
Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
Sciatic nerve damage due to spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease
Cellulitis (skin infection)
Growth plate fracture
Serious or life-threatening causes of leg pain
In some cases, leg pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible in an emergency medical setting. These include:
Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls, which limits blood flow to the extremities)
Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the spinal cord and nerves)
The complications of leg pain depend on the underlying disease, disorder and condition. Mild leg pain due to overuse usually responds to rest, ice, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. However, untreated leg pain due to serious conditions, such as deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) or peripheral artery disease, can lead to permanent damage and life-threatening secondary complications.
Some of the more serious complications of leg pain due to deep vein thrombosis, peripheral artery disease, and spinal stenosis include:
Loss of limb (amputation)
Permanent nerve damage
Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)
What other symptoms might occur with leg pain?
Other symptoms may occur with leg pain depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. If you have a fever, your leg pain is likely due to infection or inflammation. Leg pain due to arthritis may occur with stiffness and reduced range of motion. You may also experience ankle or hip pain.
Symptoms that may occur along with leg pain
Leg pain may occur with other symptoms including:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, leg pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition. Get immediate help in an emergency setting if you experience any of these symptoms:
Cold and pale leg
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Inability to walk or put weight on your leg
Pain after walking or mild exertion
Pale or bluish skin (cyanosis)
Popping sound at time of leg injury
Red, warm, and swollen legs
Sores on your feet and toes that do not heal properly