13 Common Causes of Leg Pain

Leg pain can happen to people of all ages, and it feels different for each person. Your leg pain might feel like a dull ache that comes and goes, or it might be sudden and sharp. You could have leg pain only once in a while, or it might impact you on a daily basis. Because the symptoms—and causes—of leg pain vary so much, it only makes sense that treating leg pain is often tailored to fit the individual.

What causes leg pain?

It’s important to see a doctor when the pain is severe and/or chronic. Depending on the cause of pain, treatment can vary wildly. So, what are the most common causes of leg pain, anyway? And what can you do to manage these conditions?…

Diabetic Neuropathy

What is diabetic neuropathy and how does it cause leg pain?

Diabetic neuropathy is a condition that sometimes develops as a complication of diabetes. If you have diabetic neuropathy, your body’s nerves become damaged, which leads to pain as well as other unpleasant sensations. In extreme causes, serious complications can occur.

What does diabetic neuropathy feel like?

People have described diabetic neuropathy as:

  • Numbness in the arms or legs
  • Tingling in the limbs akin to “crawling ants”
  • Leg cramps
  • Stabbing leg pain
  • Pain upon touching the limbs

Eventually, those with advanced diabetic neuropathy may develop blisters or even open sores on the feet. Overall, the pain from this condition may make walking difficult and/or cause a loss of balance.

How is diabetic neuropathy diagnosed?

To diagnose diabetic neuropathy, your doctor can check your reflexes, muscle tone, and sensitivity to touch and vibration. A dulling of any of these might indicate diabetic neuropathy. It’s also possible to need nerve conduction tests, electromyography, or other types of quantitative sensory testing, too.

How is this condition managed?

While there is no cure, early diagnosis and treatment can slow the progression of this condition. Treatment for diabetic neuropathy is often two-fold, involving both medications and lifestyle changes:

  • Medications commonly prescribed for the treatment of nerve-related pain include antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
  • Lifestyle changes can include healthier diet and exercise, to better control blood pressure and glucose levels.

Now, diabetic neuropathy is not the only chronic condition that can cause leg pain…

Multiple Sclerosis

What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack the protective covering of the nerves. The result? Uncomfortable, even painful sensations across the body—including the legs.

What does MS feel like?

People with multiple sclerosis often have:

  • Pain, numbness, and weakness on one side of the body
  • Tremors
  • An unsteady gait
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Problems with bladder and bowel function

How is MS diagnosed?

Multiple tests are needed to diagnose this condition. It often begins with a physical examination followed by blood tests, MRI scans, evoked potential tests, and a lumbar puncture.

How is MS managed?

There is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis. However, there are plenty of treatment options that can improve quality of life.

For example, doctors can prescribe medications to slow the progression of the condition. These medications can include:

  • Ocrelizumab
  • Beta interferons
  • Glatiramer acetate
  • Corticosteroids
  • Plasmapheresis

You’ll also need frequent checkups to monitor your condition. Make sure to always let your healthcare provider know if you have any changes in your leg pain or other symptoms.

Be on the lookout for other chronic conditions.

Like multiple sclerosis, there are many other conditions that can cause persistent pain in your legs. However, unlike MS, the cause of the next chronic condition that can create leg pain is unknown…

Fibromyalgia

What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that affects soft tissues and generates pain; it’s currently not known what causes it. Unfortunately, because the condition has no known cause, people with undiagnosed fibromyalgia are often initially not taken seriously at the doctor’s office when reporting their pain.

Just because the cause is unknown doesn’t mean the pain is any less real, though. Fibromyalgia makes it hard to complete activities at home, work, or school. In fact, some people find that they need to take time off while they manage their symptoms.

What does fibromyalgia feel like?

Common fibromyalgia symptoms include:

  • Pain on both sides of the body
  • Pain in the legs and arms
  • Constant, dull aching pain that can last for months at a time
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep-disrupting pain
  • Difficulty concentrating

Who is at greater risk?

You’re more at risk of fibromyalgia if you:

  • Have lupus, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Are a woman
  • Have a family history of it

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis for this condition is often a process of elimination. Specifically, to diagnose fibromyalgia, your healthcare provider will ask about the location of your pain and how long you’ve had it. You’ll then likely need to have blood tests and possibly other exams to eliminate other potential causes for your symptoms.

How is the condition managed?

If fibromyalgia is confirmed, your clinician will likely suggest treating it with pain relievers and lifestyle modifications.

Common medication options include:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Prescription drugs like tramadol

Lifestyle modifications include:

  • Stress reduction
  • Getting sufficient sleep
  • Pacing activities
  • Physical and occupational therapy

Not all causes of leg pain are unknown, though. The cause of this next pain generator is as well-known as it is dangerous…

Peripheral Artery Disease

What is peripheral artery disease?

Peripheral artery disease occurs when blood vessels narrow. This narrowing reduces blood flow to the heart and legs. One result of this condition is therefore pain in the legs.

What does this condition look and feel like?

Common symptoms of this condition include:

  • Pain in one or both legs while walking or climbing stairs
  • Cramps in the calves, hips, or thighs on one or both sides of the body after physical strain
  • Colder-feeling limbs on one or both sides of the body
  • Discoloration or shininess
  • Hair loss or slow-growing hair on one or both legs or feet
  • Weak or absent pulse in the affected areas

How is the condition diagnosed?

There are several ways to professionally diagnosis this condition. For example, your doctor can make a diagnosis by listening to your heart and checking for whooshing noises (bruits) over your arteries. They then might measure the blood pressure in your ankle and compare it to the blood pressure in your arm. Ultrasounds, angiography, and blood tests may also be recommended.

How is this condition managed?

There are several ways to manage this condition, including:

  • Taking medications like cilostazol to increase blood flow to your legs and reduce pain
  • Taking medicine to reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels
  • Taking blood thinners to lower your chance of getting a blood clot
  • Undergoing angioplasty or bypass surgery (in extreme cases)

As we’ve learned, reduced blood flow can trigger leg pain. In fact, this type of pain could also occur because of a blood clot—which causes the following serious condition…

Deep Vein Thrombosis

What is deep vein thrombosis (DVT)?

Deep vein thrombosis is a medical emergency. It happens when a blood clot forms inside one of the deep veins in the leg. The condition usually happens in only one leg, and it can develop after prolonged periods of inactivity.

Who is at greater risk?

You’re more at risk for deep vein thrombosis when you:

  • Have been traveling for several hours
  • Are on bed rest
  • Are recovering from surgery
  • Are 50 or older

What does the condition look and feel like?

If you have deep vein thrombosis, your affected leg might:

  • Feel warmer than the other one
  • Redden
  • Swell (particularly in the calf)
  • Be painful
  • Feel sore
  • Cramp

How is DVT diagnosed?

If you think you might have deep vein thrombosis, it’s important to seek emergency medical care right away.

Your doctor will perform blood tests, and you’ll also have an ultrasound of your affected leg. Sometimes, your clinician might ask you to have a venography (medical scan of the veins) or a CT scan, too.

How is this condition managed?

If a blood clot is detected in your leg, your doctor may be able to give you a medication that will quickly break up the clot. Of course, you can expect plenty of follow-ups.

For example, you may also be asked to wear compression stockings during the day at home for a period of around two years. You’ll also have regular follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider.

Restricted blood flow isn’t the only cause of leg pain.

Nerve damage is another major cause of leg pain, and the following virus can create long-term leg pain for many people…

Shingles

What is shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that results in chickenpox. It is most common in individuals over the age of 50.

What does shingles look and feel like?

People with this condition commonly report:

  • A painful, blistering rash
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to light

What are the complications of shingles?

People who have had shingles might experience a complication called postherpetic neuralgia. This chronic condition occurs when damaged nerves send exaggerated pain messages to the brain. These signals can trigger significant leg pain and balance issues. For example, patients might find that they’re unable to walk long distances and that they need frequent rest breaks while performing daily activities.

If you notice symptoms of shingles, see your doctor right away. Doing so is your best bet for reducing your risk of this complication.

How is shingles diagnosed?

Doctors normally diagnose shingles by simply examining the skin, as shingles typically—but not always—comes with a very distinct rash. Those with leg pain or any other significant pain after recovering from shingles should let their doctors know. This way, they can be evaluated for postherpetic neuralgia.

How is this condition managed?

Treatment for this condition includes:

  • Pain-relieving skin patches
  • Oral pain relievers
  • Antiviral drugs like acyclovir
  • Steroid injections
  • Vaccinations to prevent it from happening in the first place

Sometimes the causes of leg pain are much more mundane.

The most common causes of leg pain? Injury, including the following types of sports injuries…

Shin Splints

What are shin splints?

Shin splints happen when the muscles and tissues that surround the shinbone (tibia) become inflamed.

What do shin splints feel like?

The pain from shin splints:

  • Can be sharp or dull
  • Usually occurs around the back or inside of the tibia
  • Most often occurs during and after exercise

Who is at greater risk?

People involved in athletic activities that require lots of running or jumping tend to get shin splints more than those who do other types of sports. Having high-arched feet and wearing old or improper footwear could also increase your risk of developing this condition.

How are shin splints diagnosed?

To diagnose shin splints, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine your legs. Occasionally, you might need to have scans to rule out other conditions.

How is this condition managed?

Treatment for shin splints is typically centered around lifestyle modifications. For example:

  • If you play sports regularly, you’ll need to rest from these for at least a few weeks. You also might want to substitute your normal activity with a gentle exercise like swimming.
  • An elastic support bandage can be helpful if your leg is swollen, and doctors recommend placing an ice pack on the affected area for at least 20 minutes per day.
  • Performing lower-leg stretches may help to relieve pain, too.

However, if your pain is significant, you might need to take anti-inflammatory medicines. Your doctor may choose to prescribe stronger versions if over-the-counter options don’t provide enough relief.

What about avoiding injuries in the future?

You might want to consider physical therapy as you return to your normal exercise regime. It’s also important to check in with a coach about an appropriate schedule for returning to exercise. Most importantly, however, start slowly when reintroducing exercise to your routine.

Of course, shin splints aren’t the only sports injuries that can lead to leg pain…

Stress Fractures

Stress fracture in the ankle. Source: Wikipedia

What are stress fractures?

Stress fractures happen when the muscles that surround a bone are so overused that they can’t work well anymore. So, if subjected to an outside force, these muscles are too fatigued to absorb the blow. The result? This force is transferred to the bone itself, which can cause tiny breaks.

What do stress fractures feel like?

Most people with stress fractures experience sharp pain while working out, and the pain is usually reduced with rest.

Stress fractures might not become apparent until a few weeks after the initial injury occurs. So, you should always visit your doctor if you develop sharp pain in your leg that keeps recurring.

What activities increase the risk of stress fractures?

Sports that involve repetitive force, running, and jumping are most likely to cause lower-leg stress fractures. For example, you’re at a higher risk if you participate in gymnastics, tennis, basketball, or soccer.

How are stress fractures diagnosed?

To diagnose a stress fracture, your clinician will perform a physical exam and ask about your athletic activities. You’ll then need to have an x-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

In some cases, it might be difficult to see a stress fracture on the x-ray. In these cases, your doctor may ask you to have a CT or MRI scan for further confirmation.

How are stress fractures treated?

Rest is the main treatment for stress fractures. For instance, you might be advised to take six to eight weeks off training so that your injury can heal.

To manage pain, you may want to use over-the-counter pain relievers and ice packs. However, your doctor can prescribe stronger medicines if these steps don’t control your pain.

Just because bones don’t break doesn’t mean there isn’t an injury.

It doesn’t always take a fracture to cause leg pain. Sometimes, it can simply be the result of injured tendons…

Ruptured Achilles Tendon

What are Achilles tendons?

The Achilles tendon joins the muscles of the lower leg with the heel; it’s the longest tendon in your body.

What does a ruptured or torn Achilles tendon feel like?

If you’ve ruptured this tendon, you might feel a pop and sudden pain. It may feel like you’ve been hit in the calf muscle, and the back of your leg could become swollen. You might struggle with walking up the stairs, and you certainly won’t be able to stand on the tips of your toes.

Since a tendon rupture can be serious, you need to seek immediate medical care if you notice any of these symptoms.

Who is most at risk?

Achilles tendon ruptures tend to be more common in individuals who only work out occasionally. The use of cortisone injections or certain antibiotics could also increase your risk.

How is a ruptured Achilles tendon diagnosed?

To diagnose a ruptured Achilles tendon, your doctor will perform a physical examination to check for pain. Then, they will ask you how your injury occurred. This information is usually enough to confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, though, you might need to undergo medical imaging testing.

How is this condition managed?

Surgery is sometimes needed to repair the rupture. However, non-surgical options may also suffice. These options include casts and walking boots. After your rupture heals, you should undergo physical therapy to help you regain mobility, flexibility, and strength in the affected area.

Not all leg pain is due to serious injuries.

In addition to major injuries like ruptured tendons, minor injuries could cause significant leg pain as well…

Sprained Ankle

What is a sprained ankle and how does it cause pain?

A sprained ankle happens when ligaments that connect the leg bones with the foot become damaged.

How do you sprain your ankle?

There are countless ways to sprain ankles. For example, you might develop a sprained ankle from walking on an uneven surface, jumping awkwardly, falling onto your ankle, or having an accident during an athletic activity.

What are the symptoms of a sprained ankle?

If you have a sprained ankle, you could notice symptoms like:

  • Stiffness
  • Skin discoloration
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • An inability to put weight on the injured ankle

How is a sprained ankle diagnosed?

To diagnose a sprained ankle, your doctor will feel around your ankle to check for areas that are tender or painful. It’s also common to have your range of motion checked. Specifically, your doctor might ask you to move your ankle or foot into different positions to see which movements cause discomfort.

Of course, you may also receive x-rays to rule out bone fractures or even undergo an ultrasound to check how the ligament looks when it’s in different positions. You could also need CT or MRI scans in extreme cases.

How is this condition managed?

There’s an easy way to remember treatment for a sprained ankle: RICE. Specifically, RICE means:

  • Rest the ankle and minimize walking.
  • Ice the ankle for 15 to 20 minutes at a time every 2 to 3 waking hours.
  • Compress the ankle with elastic bandages to manage swelling.
  • Elevate the leg when sitting or lying down.

Of course, you can complement RICE by taking over-the-counter pain relievers and going to physical therapy. It’s important to take recovery seriously. Why? Because if your ankle doesn’t heal properly, you might need surgery to repair or reconstruct the affected ligament.

Fortunately, sprained ankles are relatively easy to treat. This next condition, however, can be trickier to both diagnose and manage…

Sciatica

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a condition that causes shooting pains down the sciatic nerve, a major nerve that runs from the lower back and down each leg.

How does sciatica pain happen?

Bone spurs, herniated discs, or spinal stenosis can all trigger this condition. Specifically, these triggers compress part of the sciatic nerve, causing the pain.

What does sciatica pain feel like?

Patients with sciatica usually only have leg pain in one of their legs. Commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Severe pain that begins in the lower back then radiates through the back of the thigh and calf
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling
  • A mild ache
  • Severe pain when coughing or sneezing

How is sciatica diagnosed?

To diagnose sciatica, your healthcare provider will test your reflexes and check your muscle strength. You might then be asked to walk on your tiptoes and heels, or even to lift your leg off the exam bed while lying on your back. Your doctor will ask you if you experience pain while performing these movements.

If your pain continues for several weeks, you might have to undergo a CT or MRI scan to get more information.

How is sciatica managed?

Mild sciatica usually resolves without treatment in a few weeks. However, your doctor may still give you muscle relaxants, narcotics, or anti-inflammatory medications to manage the pain. Some patients with severe pain need steroid injections. In most cases, physical therapy is recommended.

If a bone spur or herniated disc cause the condition, you may be able to have it surgically removed to alleviate pain.

Now, bone spurs aren’t the only ways bones can cause leg pain. In fact, the following bone-related condition is incredibly common…

Osteoporosis

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones lose density. The result? Bones that are weak and brittle.

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

It can cause symptoms like back pain, leg pain, a stooped posture, and a loss of height over time. This condition also means that bones may break much more easily than they otherwise would.

What are the risk factors for this condition?

Risk factors for this condition include:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Consuming three or more alcoholic beverages per day
  • Using tobacco products
  • Cancer
  • Lupus
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Menopause

What are common complications of this condition?

Hip and spinal fractures are among the most common complications of this condition.

How is this condition diagnosed?

Bone density scans are the most common methods for screening and diagnosing this condition.

How is this condition managed?

Some common methods for managing this condition include:

  • Medications to reduce risk of bone fractures, such as bisphosphonates (which help preserve bone density) or monoclonal antibody drugs
  • Hormonal therapy
  • Calcium and vitamin D supplements
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Taking steps to prevent falls, such as using handrails and removing throw rugs from the home
  • Routine bone density scans

Osteoporosis is incredibly common. However, it’s not the only common condition that can create leg pain. This next condition is estimated to affect more than 1 in 5 adults in the United States…

Varicose Veins

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are veins that are abnormally large and twisted. They may be elevated above the surface of the skin.

What do varicose veins feel and look like?

Commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Burning and/or throbbing in the lower legs
  • A heavy or aching sensation in the legs
  • Pain that worsens after extended periods of sitting or standing
  • Itching
  • Skin discoloration
  • Veins with a dark purple color

How is this condition diagnosed?

The most common way to diagnose varicose veins is through a simple physical exam. Specifically, your doctor may just need to look at your veins and check for swelling when you stand. In some cases, though, other tests are necessary. For example, an ultrasound may be needed to check for complications like blood clots.

Are there ways to manage this condition?

Fortunately, there are ways to manage this condition. For mild cases, for example, you may try:

  • Elevating the legs
  • Wearing compression stockings
  • Exercising/regular movement throughout the day

For severe cases, the following might help:

  • Laser therapy
  • Vein stripping
  • Endoscopic vein surgery to remove the affected veins

The best method for managing leg pain?…

What to Do about Leg Pain

Leg pain is no fun. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to not only treat leg pain, but prevent it from ever happening in the first place. After all, prevention is the best medicine!

What are some methods for preventing leg pain?

To prevent and manage leg pain, you can:

  • Wear supportive footwear, whether it’s for high-impact sports or everyday activities.
  • Stay physically active while practicing safe exercise methods to avoid injury.
  • Wear protective gear while playing sports.
  • Avoid exercising too vigorously if you’re not accustomed to it.
  • Keep yourself at a healthy weight.
  • Take precautions to prevent falls.
  • If you have chronic health conditions that cause leg pain, follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment and attend all of your scheduled appointments.

When should you see a doctor?

Many causes of leg pain are minor. However, you should see your doctor if:

  • Pain develops during or after walking
  • Swelling occurs in one or both legs
  • Dull pain worsens
  • Symptoms don’t improve after resting for a few days
  • Pain is severe

You should seek emergency medical treatment if:

  • Your leg becomes unusually cool to the touch
  • Your leg swells
  • Your leg reddens
  • Your leg is painful and/or swollen and you have a fever or breathing difficulties
  • You cannot put weight on your leg

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