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Leg Problems, Noninjury
Minor leg problems, such as sore muscles, are common. Leg problems commonly occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, and work or projects around the home. Leg problems also can be caused by injuries. If you think your leg problem is related to an injury, see the topic Leg Injuries.
Leg problems may be minor or serious and may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, cramps, numbness, tingling, weakness, or changes in temperature or color. Symptoms often develop from exercise, everyday wear and tear, or overuse.
Older adults have a higher risk for leg problems because they lose muscle mass as they age. Children may have leg problems for the same reasons as adults or for reasons specific to children. Problems are often caused by overactivity or the rapid growth of bone and muscle that occurs in children.
It may be helpful to know what the bones of the thigh and lower leg look like as well as the muscles and tendons to better understand leg problems. Leg problems that are not related to a specific injury have many causes.
- Problems can occur when you "overdo" an activity, do the same activity repeatedly, or increase your exercise. This may be called an overuse injury even though you did not have an actual injury. Examples of overuse injuries includes bursitis, tendinitis, shin splints, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, or other muscle strains or tears. Muscle cramps can be caused by activity or dehydration, especially when you exercise in the heat. For more information, see the topic Dehydration.
- Problems that affect the blood vessels (vascular disease) can include peripheral arterial disease, inflammation of a vein (phlebitis), or a blood clot (thrombophlebitis).
- A blood clot near the surface of the skin may cause only minor problems, while a clot in a deep vein may be more serious. Recent surgery, especially on bones or the pelvic or urinary organs, increases the risk of blood clots, especially in deep leg veins. Prolonged bed rest and inactivity, including sitting or standing in one position for long periods of time, or prolonged immobilization of a limb, such as in a cast or splint, also may increase the risk of blood clots.
- Problems affecting the arteries (peripheral arterial disease) can cause cramping pain that occurs with predictable amounts of exercise, such as walking a short distance, but improves with rest.
- Other diseases, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke can cause numbness, tingling, or loss of function in one or both legs.
Some leg problems are seen only in children, such as swelling at the top of the shinbone (Osgood-Schlatter disease) and swelling and pain in the knee joint (juvenile idiopathic arthritis). Growing pains are common among rapidly growing children and teens. Doctors don't know why children have growing pains. These pains often last for 1 or 2 hours at a time and can wake a child from sleep.
Swollen feet are common after you have been sitting or standing for long periods of time or during hot or humid weather. Sitting or lying down and elevating your legs will often relieve this type of swelling. Conditions that put increased pressure on the belly and pelvis, such as obesity and pregnancy, also can cause swelling in the feet and ankles and varicose veins.
- Varicose veins can affect both men and women and may only cause a problem in one leg. For more information, see the topic Varicose Veins.
- The swelling in the feet and ankles that occurs during pregnancy usually gets worse toward the end of the pregnancy and goes away after delivery. For more information, see the topic Pregnancy-Related Problems.
Many medicines can cause problems in the legs. For example, birth control pills and other hormones can increase your risk of blood clots, while water pills (diuretics) and heart medicines can cause muscle cramps.
Some leg problems are only present at night:
- Restless legs syndrome causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move the legs. This can interrupt sleep make you overly tired during the day. You may have a "pins-and-needles," prickling, creeping, crawling, tingling, and sometimes painful feeling in your legs. Moving your legs can provide short-term relief. For more information, see the topic Restless Legs Syndrome.
- Nighttime leg cramps are a sudden tightening (contraction) of the leg muscles in the calf, thigh, or foot. They often occur just as you are falling asleep or waking up. They can be painful and can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Walking or stretching your leg can sometimes help relieve nighttime leg cramps.
Most minor leg problems will heal on their own, and home treatment may be all that is needed to relieve symptoms and promote healing. But serious leg problems also may occur and require prompt evaluation by a doctor.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
Pain in children 3 years and older
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.
Symptoms of infection may include:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.
There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.
Some medicines can cause leg problems. A few examples are:
- Birth control pills and estrogen. These can increase the risk of blood clots in the leg, which may cause pain or swelling.
- Calcium channel blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure. These can cause leg swelling.
- Diuretics. These can cause leg cramps.
- Fluoroquinolones. These can increase the risk for tendinitis or tendon rupture.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
If your leg problem does not require an evaluation by a doctor, you may be able to use home treatment to help relieve pain, swelling, stiffness or muscle cramps.
- Rest and protect a stiff or sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.
- Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs immediately to prevent or minimize swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.
- For the first 48 hours, avoid things that might increase swelling, such as hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, or alcoholic beverages.
- After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between heat and cold treatments.
- Compression, or wrapping the sore area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help decrease swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, since this can cause more swelling below the area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, or swelling in the area below the bandage. Talk to your doctor if you think you need to use a wrap for longer than 48 to 72 hours; a more serious problem may be present.
- Elevate the area on pillows while applying ice and anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help minimize swelling.
- Remove all rings, anklets, or any other jewelry that goes around an extremity. It will be harder to remove the jewelry after swelling develops.
- Gently rub sore or pulled muscles to relieve pain. Do not rub or massage a calf that is swollen.
- Stand and move your legs. Gentle motion may help with cramps that are brought on by exercise.
Drink plenty of fluids. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, will often help leg cramps. For more information about the home treatment of muscle cramps that are often caused by dehydration from exercise or heat, see the topic Dehydration.
If you think your child is having growing pains, try warmth and massage to relieve discomfort in the legs. Do not rub or massage a calf that is swollen.
For leg cramps, consider wearing support stockings during the day, and take frequent rest periods (with your feet up). If leg cramps occur during pregnancy, make sure you are eating a diet rich in calcium and magnesium. Talk with your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. He or she may recommend a calcium supplement that does not contain phosphorus.
Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:
Reduce stress on your leg (until you can get advice from your doctor):
- Use a cane or crutch in the hand opposite your painful leg.
- Use two crutches, keeping weight off your leg. Canes and crutches can be rented from most pharmacies. Crutches are recommended if a cane causes you to walk with a limp.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- You are unable to use your leg normally.
- Pain or swelling develops.
- Signs of infection develop.
- Numbness; tingling; or cool, pale skin develops.
- Symptoms become more frequent or more severe.
The following tips may prevent leg problems.
General prevention tips
- Drink extra water or an electrolyte replacement drink (such as Gatorade or Powerade) before, during, and after exercise, especially during hot or humid weather.
- Warm up well and stretch before any activity. Stretch after exercise to keep hot muscles from shortening and cramping.
- Avoid exercises and activities that cause you to point your toes, and do not wear high-heeled shoes.
- Use the correct techniques (movements) or positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles. Use good posture while exercising.
- Use equipment appropriate to your size, strength, and ability.
- Avoid overusing your leg doing repeated movements that can inflame or irritate your bursa or tendon. In daily routines or hobbies, think about activities in which you make repeated leg movements, and change the way you do the activities, if possible, to prevent leg problems from developing.
- Consider taking lessons to learn the proper technique for sports. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with sports equipment check your equipment to see if it is well suited for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
- If you feel that certain activities at your workplace are causing pain or soreness from overuse, talk to your human resources department for information on alternative ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.
- If cramps wake you at night, take a warm bath and do some stretching exercises before going to bed. Keep your legs warm, and try not to point your toes while sleeping.
- Cut down on the amount of salt (sodium) you use in your diet. Sodium can be hidden in foods such as cheese, canned soups, and salad dressing. Consider making your own salt substitute. Talk to your doctor before trying a salt substitute.
- Get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour if you sit for long periods. Gentle motion may help reduce swelling in the feet and ankles.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing or straps around the waist or upper legs that may affect circulation and feeling in the legs.
Keep bones strong
- Eat a nutritious diet with enough calcium and vitamin D. (Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.) Calcium is found in dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt; dark green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli; and other foods.
- Exercise and stay active. It is best to do weight-bearing exercise (such as walking, jogging, stair climbing, dancing, or lifting weights) for 45 to 60 minutes at least 4 days a week. Weight-bearing exercises stimulate new bone growth by working the muscles and bones against gravity. Exercises that are not weight-bearing, such as swimming, are good for your general health but do not stimulate new bone growth. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you. Begin slowly, especially if you have been inactive. For more information, see the topic Fitness.
- Lose weight. Being overweight increases your risk for leg problems and makes it more difficult to do weight-bearing exercises.
- Don't drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day if you are a man, or 1 alcoholic drink a day if you are a woman. People who drink more than this may be at higher risk for weakening bones (osteoporosis). Drinking alcohol also increases your risk of falls.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking puts you at a much higher risk for developing osteoporosis. It also interferes with blood supply and healing. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Preparing For Your Appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms?
- When did the symptoms occur? What were you doing when the symptoms started?
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- Have you had similar symptoms before? When? How were they treated?
- Do any activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle make your symptoms better or worse?
- Do you think that activities related to your job or hobbies caused your symptoms?
- Have you had a recent surgery or prolonged bed rest?
- Have you recently had an extended period of inactivity, such as while traveling by plane or car?
- What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: October 19, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
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