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Leg pain is a common problem faced by many people around the world. It may manifest as a sharp stabbing pain in one or both legs, a dull ache, soreness, or even a burning sensation. At times, leg cramps may occur along with it.
Leg pain can be classified as:
- Acute leg pain: It occurs for a short duration, such as for a few days or a couple of weeks.
- Subacute leg pain: It is any leg pain that lasts between 4 and 12 weeks. (1)
- Chronic leg pain: It lasts for 3 months or longer after an injury or other causes. Chronic leg pain can occur in a small percentage of people that get acute leg pain. It means that the pain can continue for much longer than expected, (2) and in some cases, the chronic pain can be difficult to treat.
Leg pain can also occur due to disc problems. This type of pain has a sudden onset and is usually worse in the evening. It does not cause any stiffness.
Leg pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis can lead to morning stiffness characterized by soreness and restricted movement in the legs.
Learn about the causes, symptoms, and common medical treatment for chronic leg pain. (3)
Causes of Pain in the Legs
Leg pain can be due to the following factors.
1. Muscle cramps
Muscle cramps can cause involuntary and painful contractions of the muscles. They are a common cause of leg pain. Muscle cramps may occur due to age, strain, or certain deficiencies. (4)
2. Muscle fatigue or strain
Muscle fatigue or strain can occur from overusing the leg muscles, such as doing excessive exercises, running, and walking long distances. It can tire out your leg muscles and lead to leg pain. (6)
Hairline fractures and muscle sprains are common injuries that occur among athletes or other physically active people. These injuries can cause muscle or leg pain. (6)
4. Medical conditions
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD): PAD causes decreased blood supply to the legs. It is common in smokers, people with diabetes, and those with obesity. (7)
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): DVT occurs when an injury causes a blood clot in the leg veins. This may cause symptoms such as swelling and pain. (8)
- Infection: Any infection in the bone or muscle tissue can cause leg pain in some people. (9)(10) Bone tuberculosis is very common in India.
- Inflammation: Medical conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis can cause inflammation in the joints of the legs. (11)(12)
- Nerve damage: Nerve damage may occur in the legs due to chronic conditions such as diabetes. It may also happen due to mechanical damage caused by trauma to the legs. (13) Smoking and alcohol addiction are also common causes of nerve damage. (14)(15)(16)
- Diabetes: Pain in the legs is very common in both types of diabetes, due to diabetic neuropathy. Other symptoms of diabetic neuropathy along with pain include a pins-and-needles sensation, numbness, and weakness.
- Varicose veins: Varicose veins are visibly swollen veins that appear as blue-green or purple streaks. They usually occur on the legs and are a sign of damaged blood vessel walls. (17)(18)
5. Nutritional deficiencies
Deficiency in certain nutrients can cause leg pain. Vitamins B and D, copper, and calcium are all essential nutrients required by the body, and inadequate amounts of these nutrients are linked to leg pain. It may manifest as a burning sensation in the lower legs, knee pain, or toe pain. (19)
6. Growing pains in children
Growing pains are leg pain that commonly occurs in children aged 3 to 12 years. They usually occur as an ache or throbbing pain in the evening or at nighttime and go away by morning. The pain is located in the muscles and does not cause joint pain. (20)
Growing pains are usually harmless and go away on their own or by taking OTC medicines such as paracetamol.
Note: Do not give any medications to young children under the age of 12 without consulting your doctor.
7. Uncommon causes
Some uncommon causes of leg pain are:
- Restless leg syndrome: This is a neurological disorder that causes uncomfortable or uneasy sensations in the legs with an irresistible urge to move them. Restless leg syndrome typically occurs while sitting or lying down in the afternoon or evening. It generally worsens with age and can severely disrupt sleep. (21)
- Somatic depression: Somatic depression occurs due to being extremely focused on physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue. (22)
Symptoms Associated With Leg Pain
Leg pain may occur on its own or may be accompanied by a few additional symptoms such as:
Treatment for Leg Pain
Most cases of leg pain can be treated (temporarily) by the use of painkillers such as paracetamol. Another option is cream.
If the pain is not controlled by paracetamol, you may use the following medicines.
Note: Consult your health care provider before taking these medicines if you have stomach ulcers or bleeding or before giving them to a child under the age of 16.
These medicines are relatively mild on the body and are available over the counter.
Diagnosing Leg Pain
Leg pain is usually diagnosed by a healthcare professional on the basis of your lifestyle, medical history, family history, and physical examination. (3)
Your doctor may also ask you to undergo some diagnostic tests such as X-rays, blood work, MRI scans, and CT scans to confirm the diagnosis. (23)
When to See Doctor
Contact your health care provider if:
- You have sudden and severe leg pain.
- One or both legs feel cold.
- Your leg turns black or blue.
- You have a wound on the leg or feet (especially if you are diabetic).
- The pain does not stop even after taking OTC medicines.
- The severe leg pain is causing you to have a disability.
- You have recently injured your legs.
- You have signs of infections: fever, swelling in the leg area, etc.
- You have bladder or bowel issues along with your leg pain.
Frequent leg pain can be related to a lifestyle issue or can be a symptom of a serious condition. If your leg pain is interfering with your everyday life, consult a healthcare provider.