Leg Pain: 13 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 20, 2022

Woman holding on to her leg in pain

What is leg pain?

Leg pain describes pain in any part of the leg, from the ankle joint, right up to the hip. It can involve the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints with a variety of different injuries leading to leg pain.[1]

What are the symptoms of leg pain?

Leg pain can affect the entire leg or be localised to a particular point. The type of pain can vary wildly and be described as dull or sharp, aching or stabbing, and burning or tingling.

Other symptoms of leg pain include:

  • Muscle cramping

  • Tenderness

  • Leg stiffness

  • Redness or bruising

  • Swelling

  • Muscle weakness

  • Difficulty walking.

What causes leg pain?

Leg pain has many possible causes, from acute injuries like muscle sprains and strains, to more chronic problems like sciatica, muscle weakness, overuse injuries and referred pain.

Here are the most common causes of leg pain:

Leg injuries

1. Muscle Strains

  • Muscle strains occur when the muscle fibres tear as a result of overstretching. This often occurs in the larger muscles, such as hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps.

2. Tendonitis

  • Tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendon due to overuse and affects movement, especially on the joint of the leg, from the hamstrings and the heel bone.

3. Bursitis

  • Knee bursitis occurs when the fluid-filled sacs or bursa surrounding the knee joint are inflamed.

4. Shin Splints

  • Shin splints are pain located along the inner edge of the shin bone or tibia. It occurs when the muscles around the shin-bone tear from overuse.

5. Stress Fractures

  • Stress fractures are multiple breakages on the bones, especially the shin bone.

6. Cramps

Cramps are a typical reason someone experiences leg pain and sometimes is associated with muscle spasms.[2] They can have an abrupt onset, with sharp pain as the muscles contract. The tightening of the muscles is often visible to the naked eye, in which a hard lump might appear on the skin. Others have redness and swelling around the area of the leg.

Cramps happen because of muscle fatigue from extensive physical activity, and dehydration, especially in the calf. Medications including diuretics and statins may also precipitate leg cramps.

Medical Conditions

There are a number of health issues that lead to leg pain, including:

7. Atherosclerosis

  • The narrowing of the arteries due to the build-up and hardening of fat and cholesterol, impeding blood flow and oxygen reaching certain parts of the body. If the tissues in the leg do not receive enough blood, it can result in leg pain, particularly in the calves.

8. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

  • A blood clot that forms in the deep veins and typically forms in the lower leg after prolonged immobility in surgery, or medical procedures, causing swelling, redness and cramping.[3]

9. Arthritis

  • Inflammation of joints, which causes pain, swelling, and redness. It commonly affects the knees and the hips.

10. Gout

  • A form of arthritis from uric acid build-up and is experienced mainly in the feet and lower parts of the leg.[4]

11. Varicose Veins

  • Varicose veins - enlarged and knotted veins from overfilled blood and weakened valves through age. They appear in the calves and ankles and look swollen or raised. Sometimes varicose veins can be painful.

12. Infection

  • In the bone or tissues causes pain, swelling, and redness in the affected area.

13. Nerve damage

  • Usually in the feet and lower parts of the legs, is due to diabetes. Individuals with this concern experience numbness, pain, or a tingling sensation.

Other causes of leg pain

In some cases, there are other conditions and injuries which could cause leg pain:

Herniated Disc

  • A herniated disc is when a portion of the disc between your spinal joints compresses the nerves in the spine. The pain will start from the back and radiate down your arms or legs when triggered.

Osgood-Schlatter disease

  • Osgood-Schlatter disease is when the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shin bone becomes strained. Osgood-Schlatter disease is common in adolescents experiencing growth spurts during puberty. This cartilage is responsible for the tibia and the kneecap attachment, and it can form a lump below the knee once damaged. Complaints include tenderness and swelling of the knees.

Legg-Calve-Perthes disease

  • Legg-Calve-Perthes disease happens when blood supply is interrupted to the ball of the hip. From this, the bone can become permanently deformed. The pain is typically around the hip, thigh or knee, and most affected are adolescents.

Slipped capital femoral epiphysis

  • Slipped capital femoral epiphysis is a condition that separates the ball of the hip joint from the thigh bone, causing hip pain. The condition primarily occurs in overweight children.

  • Non-cancerous or benign tumours from the thigh bone or shin bone.

  • Malignant or cancerous bone tumours that form in larger leg bones.

Treating leg pain at home

In mild cases of leg pain, home remedies can be effective; a combination of rest and other behaviours can take away some of the pain.

Some things you can do at home include;

Apply ice

Apply ice to the affected leg at least four times a day. It can be done more frequently in the first few days after the onset of pain. Just ensure to keep it there for at least 15 minutes for each application.

Take a warm bath and stretch

Have a warm bath to relax your tensed muscles, and while at it, gently stretch your legs. If you have pain in the lower part of your leg, try pointing and straightening your toes when sitting or standing. If it is located in the upper part, try bending over and touching your toes.

Ease up to your stretches while sitting on the ground or standing, hold each position for at least 5 to ten seconds, and stop the stretching when the pain gets worse.

When to see your doctor about leg pain

If you are experiencing these symptoms, it warrants a visit to your GP:

  • Swelling in both legs

  • Varicose veins that are causing discomfort

  • Pain while walking

  • Leg pain that persists beyond a few days and continues to get worse.

Emergency services are then imperative if you have any of the following:

  • Fever

  • Deep cut on your leg

  • When it appears red and warm to touch

  • The leg looks pale and feels cool to touch

  • You are having difficulty breathing, with swelling on both legs

  • Unable to walk or put any weight on your leg

  • Leg injury that occurred with a pop or a grinding noise.

Never ignore leg pain, as it may be caused by various reasons, especially if it does not seem to go away or if there are additional symptoms. See a physician if you have concerns regarding your leg pain.

Preventing leg pain

It is great to stretch your muscles before and after exercising and physical activity. In addition, eating food high in potassium, such as chicken and bananas, helps prevent injuries from happening. You can also help prevent nerve damage by:

  • Exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per week

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Avoid smoking

  • Monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure, and take steps to keep them under control

  • Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink per day if you are a woman or two drinks if you are a man.

Ultimately, talk to your doctor to know more ways to prevent specific causes of leg pain.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on June 20, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on June 20, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on June 20, 2022
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