Hip and Leg Pain: 5 Possible Causes

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on June 6, 2022

Man with hip and leg pain

What is hip and leg pain?

Pain in the hip or leg can be caused by many different conditions, including muscle strain or arthritis.[2] Sometimes, the pain is temporary and will resolve with time. In other situations, it can become chronic and needs to be managed over time.

The hips and legs allow us to move around, exercise, and complete our everyday activities. Pain that affects the hip or leg can therefore be very frustrating and impacts people of all ages.[1]

Here are some of the most common causes of pain in the hip and leg, and how to get relief.

What are the symptoms of hip and leg pain?

Depending on the cause, symptoms of hip and leg pain may include:

  • A dull or sharp pain

  • Stiffness

  • Muscle cramps

  • Weakness in the affected area

  • Decreased mobility

  • Difficulty with movements, such as climbing stairs or walking

  • ‘Clicking’ or ‘grating’ noises.

What are the causes of hip and leg pain?

The most common causes of hip and leg pain include:

  1. Muscle aches or strain

  2. Tendinopathy

  3. Arthritis

  4. Bursitis

  5. Sciatica

1. Muscle aches or strains

Almost everyone has experienced muscle discomfort at some point. Muscle aches or strains usually occur after high intensity sport or a new exercise. The onset of symptoms can often be linked to a recent activity that has stressed or overstretched the muscles in the affected area.

Overuse of muscles can cause pain, stiffness, and difficulty with everyday tasks such as walking or moving from sitting to standing.

Treatment of muscle aches / strains

Muscle aches or strains usually resolve with time. A period of rest, avoiding any aggravating activities, can help settle any symptoms and start the healing process. In some cases, over-the-counter medication can help relieve the pain and allow the hips and legs to move more easily. After a short time, exercise may be reintroduced to begin building strength.

2. Tendinopathy

Tendinopathy is an overuse injury of the tendons at certain joints in the body, most commonly in the knee and hip. These tendons can become irritated or over fatigued as a result of repetitive movements or high intensity exercise which can lead to degenerative changes.[3]

In some cases, there is no pain when resting. Pain usually occurs during or after exercise. Other symptoms may include stiffness and difficulty with certain movements, such as squatting or climbing stairs. Tendinopathy is common in athletes, especially in sports that require repetitive movement or jumping.

Treatment of tendinopathy

Tendinopathy can be complex to treat and requires a strong commitment to recovery. A physiotherapist can be very helpful in this process, as they can prescribe exercises to target strength, improve function, and reduce any symptoms. It is important to increase load gradually. They may also recommend other treatments such as ice therapy, taping, massage, or stretching exercises.

3. Arthritis

Arthritis is a joint condition that involves inflammation in one or more joints. There are lots of types of arthritis, however the two most common are osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) and rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune inflammatory disorder affecting the joints). The joints are important as they absorb load and allow the body to move. When the joints are affected, it can cause hip or leg pain and affect everyday activities.

The occurrence of arthritis increases with age, and it is most commonly experienced by people over the age of 65 but it can also affect younger people.[1] The prevailing symptoms are joint stiffness, morning pain, reduced stability, and reduced strength.

Arthritis treatment

If the pain is caused by arthritis, symptoms are usually managed over time as there is no specific cure. Low-impact exercises, water therapy, stretching, and walking can help increase strength and reduce symptoms. Lifestyle changes and pain management strategies are also beneficial to relieve any symptoms.

4. Bursitis

Bursitis refers to inflammation of the bursa, which are small fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction and between bones, muscles, or tendons. There are many different bursae throughout the body, including in the hip and knee. Bursitis in these areas can cause hip and knee pain.4

Bursitis is often due to repetitive activities, especially if there is poor technique or weak muscles in the area. Bone spurs are a risk factor for bursitis. Symptoms of bursitis include stiffness and a dull or sometimes sharp pain in the affected area. Pain may become worse when the area is compressed, such as when sitting or lying on the area. Everyday activities, such as climbing stairs, can also worsen any symptoms.

Bursitis treatment

Bursitis requires a combination of treatment options. A physiotherapist can help prescribe specific exercises and other treatments to settle any symptoms and strengthen the muscles in the area. If the pain persists, a doctor may recommend prescription medication. In some cases, a corticosteroid injection may be used to relieve pain and help restore function. It’s also helpful to avoid any aggravating activities that may worsen the pain.

5. Sciatica

The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that exits the spinal canal and travels down the back of the leg to the foot. When this nerve is irritated, it is called sciatica.

Sciatica can be caused by a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, which can compress or irritate the nerve. Symptoms include radiating pain to the hip or leg.

In some cases, sciatica can be caused by a more serious underlying condition. It is important to consult a doctor if there are any red flag symptoms, such as any weakness or numbness, loss of bladder or bowel control, or any other unexplained symptoms.

Treatment of sciatica

The goal of treatment is to reduce any symptoms and improve mobility. Sometimes, certain exercises can help manage the pain and strengthen the muscles in the area. A doctor may also recommend prescription medication or a corticosteroid injection to alleviate any symptoms.

In some cases, a doctor may recommend a review with a neurosurgeon to discuss surgical options. However, if the pain is caused by a serious underlying medical condition, surgery may be the first line of treatment.

When to see a doctor

If the pain is severe and persistent, or is a result of trauma or an injury, it’s important to speak to a doctor. The common causes of hip and leg pain can present in a similar way to other more serious conditions such as fracture, infection, or tumour. It is therefore important to consult a medical practitioner if there are any concerns.

Things to consider about hip and leg pain

Hip and leg pain are commonly caused by muscle aches or strain, tendinopathy, arthritis, bursitis, or sciatica. In some cases, the pain may resolve with time and simple treatments. However, the symptoms may be caused by a serious underlying medical condition so it is important to consult with a doctor if there are any concerns that may require medication assistance.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on June 6, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on June 6, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on June 6, 2022
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