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Leg pain

Definition

Leg pain is a common problem. It can be due to a cramp, injury, or other cause.

Alternative Names

Pain - leg; Aches - leg; Cramps - leg

Causes

Leg pain can be due to a muscle cramp (also called a charley horse). Common causes of cramps include:

  • Dehydration or low amounts of potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium in the blood
  • Medicines (such as diuretics and statins)
  • Muscle fatigue or strain from overuse, too much exercise, or holding a muscle in the same position for a long time

An injury can also cause leg pain from:

  • A torn or overstretched muscle (strain)
  • Hairline crack in the bone (stress fracture)
  • Inflamed tendon (tendinitis)
  • Shin splints (pain in the front of the leg from overuse)

Other common causes of leg pain include:

Less common causes include:

  • Cancerous bone tumors (osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma)
  • Legg-Calve-Perthes disease: Poor blood flow to the hip that may stop or slow the normal growth of the leg
  • Noncancerous (benign) tumors or cysts of the femur or tibia (osteoid osteoma)
  • Sciatic nerve pain (radiating pain down the leg) caused by a slipped disk in the back
  • Slipped capital femoral epiphysis: Most often seen in boys and overweight children between ages 11 and 15

Home Care

If you have leg pain from cramps or overuse, take these steps first:

  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Elevate your leg.
  • Apply ice for up to 15 minutes. Do this 4 times per day, more often for the first few days.
  • Gently stretch and massage cramping muscles.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Other homecare will depend on the cause of your leg pain.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • The painful leg is swollen or red.
  • You have a fever.
  • Your pain gets worse when you walk or exercise and improves with rest.
  • The leg is black and blue.
  • The leg is cold and pale.
  • You are taking medicines that may be causing leg pain. DO NOT stop taking or change any of your medicines without talking to your provider.
  • Self-care steps do not help.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will perform a physical exam and look at your legs, feet, thighs, hips, back, knees, and ankles.

Your provider may ask questions such as:

  • Where on the leg is the pain? Is the pain in one or both legs?
  • Is the pain dull and aching or sharp and stabbing? Is the pain severe? Is the pain worse at any time of day?
  • What makes the pain feel worse? Does anything make your pain feel better?
  • Do you have any other symptoms such as numbness, tingling, back pain, or fever?

Your provider may recommend physical therapy for some causes of leg pain.

References

Ginsberg J. Peripheral venous disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 81.

Marcussen B, Hogrefe C, Amendola A. Leg pain and exertional compartment syndromes. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee & Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 112.

Shy ME. Peripheral neuropathies. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 420.

Silverstein JA, Moeller JL, Hutchinson MR. Common issues in orthopedics. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 30.

White CJ. Atherosclerotic peripheral arterial disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 79.

Review Date:8/14/2015
Reviewed By:Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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