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Your legs have to carry the entire load of your body, and they are bound to run out of steam from time to time.
While it is normal to experience weakness in the legs after a physically exacting task, you tend to get over it rather quickly after getting proper rest.
Weakness is essentially a feeling of diminished strength or energy, which can result from either a physiological cause such as loss of muscle strength or can be purely psychological in nature.
Asthenia is a broad medical term that is used to define both true and perceived weakness.
Overworked leg muscles can also give rise to some degree of pain, which further drains the strength out of your legs.
If the weakness in your legs is accompanied by pain, you may be able to retain muscle function, but your legs will hurt on the slightest exertion and will tire more easily.
While it is true that overworked muscles may be associated with pain, it is this pain that is likely to prevent further activity rather than the weakness that accompanies it.
Loss of strength in your legs essentially means that you will have to make more effort than usual to move them. This kind of muscle weakness can vary in severity and can affect one or both of your legs.
The impaired motor function is referred to as monoparesis if it is limited to just one limb and paraparesis if the weakness extends to both the legs.
Everybody suffers from weakness in the legs occasionally, but some people have it far worse than others.
Signs and Symptoms of Weakness in Legs
Leg weakness may be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Fatigue with strenuous or prolonged activity
- Numbness or pain in the lower leg muscles as well as the foot
- Muscle spasms
- Prickling or burning sensations
- Swelling due to overworked muscles
- Pain in the lower back
- Body aches
- Tremors in the legs
- Loss of muscle coordination and balance resulting in frequent falling or tripping accidents
Causes of Weak Legs
Leg weakness can be due to a number of reasons.
1. Common Causes
Strenuous physical activity: Weakness in the legs is often the outcome of excessive physical strain that can render your leg muscles extremely tired and sore.
This is usually the case when you push your legs beyond the regular degree of exercise that they are accustomed to or you engage in a physically exacting task for an extended period of time.
Poor sleeping schedule: Getting enough sleep regularly is essential to keep your body functional. Your muscles are constantly in a state of activity during the waking hours, and they deserve a bit of rest at the end of a hard day of work.
Sleep helps repair and revive the body for the next day. If you always deprive yourself of proper sleep, the strain on your muscles will build up over time, leaving them utterly exhausted.
Keep in mind that poor sleep will likely have a more generalized effect on any perceived weakness rather than being specific to the legs.
Fatigue: Weak legs can also be a manifestation of overall fatigue or tiredness, which can result from a number of factors.
The busy, overworked, and stressful lifestyles that have become the norm now can take a major toll on your body, as they leave no room for proper rest and recovery.
Conversely, if you lead a largely sedentary lifestyle with minimal levels of physical activity, your body is bound to run out of steam far more easily.
Fatigue can also stem from underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, or boredom, but the resulting exhaustion tends to go away once you deal with what is bothering your mind.
Nutritional deficiency: Weakness in the legs can also be the body’s way of telling you that you are running low on certain essential nutrients.
Weak legs due to malnutrition are generally observed in people who do not consume enough vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium, all of which are required by the body for building and maintaining strong, healthy bones and muscles.
Generalized weakness in the leg muscles can also result from decreased levels of certain naturally occurring electrolytes in the body, namely, potassium and sodium.
Low levels of iron may also be responsible for achy muscles and weakness.
Trauma: People tend to lose some degree of strength in their legs in the wake of a serious physical injury such as a sprain or a fracture, which may resolve over time.
However, if the physical trauma is very deep-seated, you may never regain the same level of functionality in your legs as before the injury.
Arthritis: Arthritis encompasses a group of musculoskeletal disorders that lead to the progressive degeneration of muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, and/or joints. Arthritis refers specifically to inflammation resulting from joint-space narrowing.
It is true, however, that there are several types that may have variable effects on other organ systems.
Effects regarding ligamentous insertion in rheumatoid arthritis, for example, are typically related to changes in a ligament’s mechanical advantage as the bone is resorbed over time.
Weakness and pain in the legs figure among the most commonly reported complaints by patients with arthritis.
Aging: No one is exempt from the gradual breakdown of muscle mass and the resulting loss of muscle strength brought on by increasing age.
Even the healthiest adults will suffer from reduced muscle function as they get older, and after a point, they will require help with the performance of daily tasks such as walking as is seen in a majority of the geriatric population.
This kind of muscular degradation tends to disrupt the body balance of elderly individuals, which is why they can be prone to fall accidents and nonvertebral fractures.
Other factors that may contribute to falls include vision, nutrition, and medication.
According to Dr. Estelle Farrell, DO who is a Physiatrist at Vibrant Health Care, Valley of The Sun Institute for Pain Management, Pima Pain Center, “some elderly people experience general leg weakness due to inactivity.”
Postsurgical recuperation: If you do not get proper rest and follow-up care after leg surgery, you may experience weakness in the affected leg.
Poor blood circulation: Reduced or inadequate blood supply to your lower limbs can make your legs feel utterly weak.
When the muscles in your legs do not receive a steady supply of essential nutrients and oxygen that come along with the blood, they are bound to tire easily.
You may also experience numbness and cramping in the legs whenever the blood circulation in the lower half of your body becomes compromised.
2. Neuromuscular Causes
Functional limb weakness: This is simply a perceived weakness that is not related to a clearly recognized neurological disorder. (1)
Multiple sclerosis: MS is a chronic autoimmune disorder that can have potentially debilitating effects on the functioning of your body.
MS attacks the central nervous system and hampers the relay of information between the brain and the body.
This illness can severely hamper your ability to move your limbs on account of increased muscle exhaustion. Generalized fatigue is another characteristic symptom of MS, which only makes the muscle weakness worse. (2)
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder: This degenerative disease refers to a whole spectrum of inherited motor and sensory neuropathies that damage the peripheral nervous system.
The Charcot-Marie-tooth disorder is known to make your limbs considerably weak due to the progressive loss of muscle mass and sensory function. (3)
Guillain-Barré syndrome: GBS is an acute neurological disorder that can have very dire consequences on the functioning of your peripheral nervous system.
This rare medical condition triggers an abnormal response by the immune system, in which the body mistakenly targets the healthy nerves located outside the brain and spinal cord.
Early-stage GBS may give rise to some degree of muscle weakness, tingling, and pain in your extremities (feet and hands), which can rapidly progress to disable your entire body. Children tend to be the worst affected and may exhibit difficulty in walking. (4)
Distal muscular dystrophy: This condition comprises several inherited myopathies or muscle disorders that are characterized by progressive wasting and weakening of the distal muscles that are located farthest from the body center.
Myasthenia gravis: Myasthenia gravis is Latin for “grave muscle weakness.” In the medical world, this term refers to a long-term neuromuscular disease in which the immune system attacks the healthy body tissue and destroys neuromuscular connections as a result of it.
The disruption of communication between the nerves and the muscles can lead to periodic episodes of skeletal muscle weakness, which gets aggravated by excessive physical activity and resolves through proper rest.
Myasthenia gravis can have quite a debilitating impact on your ability to move your limbs, but it can be managed with appropriate treatment. (6)
Parkinson’s disease: PD is a progressive form of a neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects your motor system.
This chronic condition is caused by the gradual degeneration of the dopamine-producing neurons that are located in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra.
This type of nerve cell damage can give rise to tremors, loss of body balance, stiffness, and decreased the mobility of the limbs.
According to a 2010 review, patients with Parkinson’s disease may experience weakness in their muscles as a result of their neurological condition. (7)
3. Spinal Conditions Causing Leg Weakness
Slip disc/herniated disc: This condition involves the displacement of a cushioning disc located between the spinal vertebrae. These discs function to absorb any kind of a shock to reduce the risk of spinal injury.
Lumbar spinal canal stenosis: Lumbar spinal canal stenosis is a degenerative condition in which the lower spinal canal becomes constricted and thereby compresses the nerves running through it.
Since these nerves are extend all the way to your legs, this condition is often associated with pain and numbness in the lower limbs.
This kind of abnormal narrowing puts increased pressure on the spinal nerves that stretch down to the legs.
Thus, lumbar spinal canal stenosis can give rise to radiating back pain that extends to the legs and, consequently, causes increased muscle weakness in the lower limbs.
Sciatica: Sciatica develops when the sciatic nerve in the lower spine becomes compressed, leading to an irritation of the nerve roots attached to it.
It is characterized by shooting pain that stems from the lower back and runs down through the buttocks, down the back of each leg, sometimes culminating in the foot.
The pain is often accompanied by tingling or numbness along the path of the sciatic nerve.
4. Other Conditions
Diabetic neuropathy: Leg weakness can also be a symptom of nerve damage caused by long-term diabetes. When the peripheral nerves become irritated, you may experience a gradual loss of strength in your extremities such as your feet and hands.
Alcoholic polyneuropathy: Overconsumption of alcohol for a prolonged period of time, or alcohol abuse as it is commonly called, can deplete the body’s nutrient reserves and can lead to considerable nerve damage.
One essential nutrient that gets drained away on account of excessive alcohol intake is thiamine (vitamin B1), and a deficit of this kind sets the ground for alcoholic polyneuropathy.
What follows next is an onslaught of discomforting physical symptoms, which include muscle weakness, cramps, spasms, and aches.
Stroke (sudden weakness): A stroke can send your entire body into a state of disorientation by disrupting the transmission of neuromuscular signals that control your motor function.
You are likely to experience a sudden loss of body balance during a stroke. Tingling, loss of sensation, and sudden weakness in the lower limbs are all common indicators of stroke.
Ways to Strengthen Your Leg Muscles
People who are prone to weakness in the legs should adopt a multifaceted approach in building back their muscle strength.
There are a number of things you can do at home to keep your condition from deteriorating further, which includes taking a well-balanced diet, meeting your optimum fluid needs, keeping your leg muscles active through appropriate exercise, and resting your legs from time to time.
In addition to proper home care, you can utilize a selection of complementary therapies to keep your legs functioning properly.
1. Preventive Self-Care Measures
- If you keep your legs in one position for an extended period of time, their muscles tend to become jammed or tense due to the prolonged stress.So, try not to stand or sit in a stationary position for too long. Make it a point to move or stretch out your legs from time to time to keep them relaxed and nimble.
- People who smoke should seriously consider quitting this habit in the interest of their overall health in general and to preserve their muscle strength in particular.
- Limit your intake of greasy foods that are high in saturated fat.
- Foods that are high in sodium can make you more prone to edema or water retention inside the body, which can further deteriorate your muscle function.You are therefore advised to keep your salt consumption within the recommended limit to prevent such complications.
- When your legs feel tired and heavy such that it takes a whole lot of effort to move them, keeping the lower limbs in a raised position for a few minutes may provide relief.Elevating your legs sends more blood to the affected site, which can help reinvigorate the worn-out muscles.
- Wear comfortable footwear that offers proper cushioning and support to your distressed feet. Flats and high heels are to be avoided.
Massaging your legs, if done correctly, can help stimulate blood circulation at the affected site. The increase in blood flow can bring more nutrients to your worn-out leg muscles and may help repair the damage.
A leg massage is a non-invasive therapy for relieving the pain and inflammation caused by strained leg muscles. However, for this intervention to yield the desired results, it is essential that you perfect the technique before trying it on your own.
If you do not feel confident enough to do it yourself, you can seek the services of a professional masseuse or physical therapist.
Rubbing the affected area the wrong way can aggravate your discomfort, especially if the leg weakness stems from a relatively serious condition.
To stave off any complications, it is recommended that you consult your doctor before trying this treatment.
3. Regular Walking
Walking qualifies as a low-intensity exercise that can be performed even when your legs feel kind of feeble. Keeping your leg muscles active is essential for building their strength and overall mass.
This form of gentle exercise may also help flex and tone your leg muscles and increases the blood flow to the damaged tissue.
Older individuals are especially recommended to push themselves out of their sedentary existence by going for short walks that should preferably involve a few turns to further improve their aerobic capacity.
According to a 2017 study, this exercise pattern (slow walking with turns) is an easy-to-do intervention for older adults to work out their lower limbs, and it may help preserve their muscle strength and muscle mass for longer. (8)
The intensity of this type of physical activity can be adjusted according to your comfort, which makes it especially suitable for people who already have difficulty walking and are unfit for more rigorous forms of exercise.
That said, it is always preferable for a person with weakened legs to start with slow, low-intensity walks. There is no need to be too adventurous and go for extensive walks if you are not capable.
Pushing your body beyond its threshold can undo the little progress that you have already made and can even leave you worse off than before. So, it is best to speak with your doctor before increasing the duration, distance, and speed of your walks.
4. Leg-Strengthening Exercises
You can try a number of strength-building and resistance exercises that are customized to train all the major leg muscles.
The prospect of working out when your legs feel utterly incapacitated may seem quite impossible, but it is just what you need to regain your muscle strength.
a. Exercises: It is important to keep your leg muscles flexed and active to keep them from atrophying further. You can start out easy and gradually increase the intensity of your exercise as your legs become more accustomed to the routine.
There are a number of ways to progressively challenge your legs musculature without putting additional load – over time; you can perform more repetitions, perform more sets, or decrease the period of rest in between sets.
If your legs start to ache intolerably or feel like they will give way, you must cease the exercise at once. Pushing your already weakened legs beyond a point can be counterproductive, so it is important that you exercise to the extent that it is comfortably tolerable.
Squats and lunges are especially helpful in building the endurance of your leg muscles and can be safely performed at home without the need for expert supervision. (9)
Do note that no matter how seemingly safe an exercise or activity may be, it is imperative that you consult your physician about it before starting.
b. Yoga: Yoga is another preferred form of exercise for people with frail lower limbs. The therapeutic benefits of yoga are highlighted by a study that stated that this ancient technique could help build your muscular strength while improving other aspects of your overall body function. (10)
c. Tai chi: Tai chi is yet another age-old exercise that may help enhance the muscular strength, core balance, posture, and flexibility of your entire body if practiced regularly.
Tai chi has its roots in China where it was traditionally practiced as an alternate form of martial arts and meditation.
Over the years, this form of defense training has gained popularity all over the world due to the numerous health benefits that it has to offer. In fact, the health-promoting effect of tai chi has been compared to the more conventional exercise techniques such as resistance training and brisk walking.
A 2016 cross-sectional RCT study that was performed on 410 elderly adults who lived in a community setting suggested that tai chi may help delay or reduce the loss of muscle strength brought on by increasing age when performed on a long-term basis. (13)
Given that the study only concerned itself with community-dwelling subjects, its results cannot be generalized to the geriatric populations residing in nursing homes or hospital settings.
Another limitation to consider while interpreting these findings is that this largely cross-sectional study needs to be corroborated by more extensive and varied research, including multicenter randomized controlled trials with large sample size. (13)
Another 2014 study conducted on 105 urban elderly women found tai chi to be a fruitful fitness measure when performed continuously for an extended period; its short-term effects were found to be rather obscure or insubstantial. (11)(12)
5. Drinking More Fluids
Water is the fuel that keeps every system in your body running smoothly. If you do not meet your recommended fluid intake on a regular basis, the damage will begin to show in the form of various problematic symptoms.
Weakening and cramping of the leg muscles can be indications of dehydration, which can only be corrected if you up your fluid intake to meet your body’s requirement.
As a rule of thumb, every healthy individual is advised to drink a minimum of 7-8 glasses of water a day.
You can also consume other non-caffeinated beverages such as soups and juices as well as water-rich fruits and vegetables to keep your body hydrated.
The trick is to distribute your fluid intake throughout the day, rather than drinking copious amounts in one go. One simple way to ensure that you remain well-hydrated at all times is to supplement all your meals with a drink. Just try not to go long without having water or some refreshing drink.
Bear in mind that caffeinated and alcoholic beverages are not preferable alternatives to water, as they are known to induce a diuretic effect that can enhance dehydration instead of correct it.
6. Physical Therapy
People who have undergone severe leg or spinal cord injury are often referred to a physiotherapist to regain full function of their affected limb.
This kind of specialized physical therapy is also recommended for people who have had their leg operated and as a supportive care tool for people with the following conditions:
- Back or shoulder pain
- Cerebral palsy
- Osteoporosis (weak bones)
Although physical therapy exercises are usually modified to meet the needs of individual patients, they majorly address the following aims:
- Activating the underutilized muscles
- Enhancing muscle strength and flexibility
- Flexing the stiff joints to improve their range of motion
A physical therapist can teach you the correct way to use your muscles to make your limb movement less painful.
Regularly exercising your leg muscles under expert supervision may fast-track your recovery process and simultaneously reduce the risk of further injury or disability.
You can employ the services of a physical therapist either at your home or in a whole range of other settings such as hospitals, private practice clinics, nursing homes, schools, or rehabilitation centers.
7. Eating a Healthy Diet
The importance of a wholesome, well-balanced diet cannot be stressed enough for building strong, enduring muscles.
People who make nutritionally deficient food choices are more likely to develop weakness in the legs and other health issues that can make this condition worse, such as hampered blood circulation, general fatigue, and muscle cramps.
a. Protein: Protein is extremely important for building and preserving your muscle mass and strength. A number of dietary sources can supplement your protein needs, including animal meat, fish, soy foods, eggs, chickpea, lentils, yogurt, and nuts.
Another key element of a muscle-friendly diet is carbohydrate, and it is best to derive your quota through grain-based sources.
Besides these macronutrients, you must consume foods that are rich in calcium and magnesium. According to expert advice, it is preferable to meet most of your calcium or magnesium needs through dietary intake rather than supplements.
b. Calcium: The calcium derived from food sources is more readily and effectively absorbed by the body as opposed to its supplement derivative. This is compounded by the fact that the concentrated form of calcium derived from supplements can make you prone to kidney stones and heart ailments.
Calcium-rich foods to include in your diet:
- Dairy products
- Leafy green vegetables
- Summer squash
- Green beans
- Certain kinds of fish
- Grains such as oatmeal
- Sea vegetables such as kelp
- Calcium-fortified foods such as cereals and orange juice
People with celiac disease or type 2 diabetes are more likely to consume a magnesium-deficient diet and often require special assistance by a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to overcome this shortage without aggravating their condition.
c. Magnesium: Much like calcium, it is better to meet your daily magnesium requirement through diet rather than supplements. This is especially true for people who are already on medication for a preexisting condition.
High-dose magnesium supplements can adversely interact with the drugs that you are taking or diminish their effectiveness. Thus, it is essential to consult your doctor before starting any type of supplement to avoid any unforeseen reaction.
Magnesium-rich foods to include in your diet:
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach
- Whole grains
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black beans
- Soy milk
When to See a Doctor
Generalized weakness in the legs due to physical exertion comes and goes without raising any serious cause of concern.
However, if the condition becomes increasingly frequent or chronic, it is necessary to get yourself evaluated by a doctor to determine the underlying cause.
“Leg weakness can be a sign of a serious illness. Depending on the type of weakness, the problem can be traced back to a disorder of the central nervous system or peripheral nervous system, vascular, trauma, or other disease process. Thus, if someone is suffering from leg weakness, they should discuss it with their physician.
It’s not normal for people to have prolonged leg weakness, so make sure to have your doctor do a good examination and review possible treatments and diagnostics.” as suggested by Dr. Estelle Farrell, DO.
Only when a proper diagnosis has been reached will the doctor lay down an appropriate course of treatment.
Answered by Dr. Ashish Anand, MBBS (Orthopedic Surgeon)
Disclaimer: The answers to the questions are general advice. In case of any doubt or concerns, please contact a physician to get yourself examined and discuss your issues.
Weak legs can be due to poor health or neurological issues originating from the brain or the spine. Neurological issues could include stroke and multiple sclerosis. Spine issues can be due to injury, disc prolapse, or canal stenosis.
Anxiety, in general, can make you freeze and can manifest as multiple somatic symptoms. It is possible that weak legs are a manifestation of anxiety, but it would be transient, which means it occurs at the height of anxiety.
Multiple sclerosis can manifest in varying forms, including generalized fatigue, eye issues such as diplopia, and weakness in upper limbs and lower extremities.
Jelly legs is a symptom of anxiety. Whenever you are under stress, the body reacts through an outpour of stress hormones, causing muscle contraction.
When the muscles are under sustained contraction, blood supply is cut off, resulting in weakness. Anxiety causes temporary paralysis/weakness, and it is usually resolved. However, chronic anxiety is not good and one needs to see a psychiatrist.
The elderly can have weak legs because of multiple issues, suchg as the normal process of aging, side effects of drugs, generalized poor health, depression, neurological issues, and issues originating in the spine. Spine issues manifest as lower back pain and weakness in legs with limited walking distance.
If your health is ok and you are not depressed and weakness is limiting your activity, then it is recommended to consult your physician as soon as possible.
About Dr. Ashish Anand, MBBS: Dr. Anand has a significant number of published work in national and international journals of repute. He has presented lectures as a faculty, both at national and international levels.
Dr. Anand was a lead author of the chapter “Exposures in Knee Arthroplasty” in the book Surgical Techniques in Knee Arthroplasty published by Elsevier. He was also the editor and chapter author of the book Management of Arthritis – A Holistic View, published by Bentham Science.