What Causes Leg Pain?

Medically Reviewed By Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
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There are many possible causes of leg pain. Common causes include injury, trauma, and underlying medical conditions. Most of these causes are highly treatable and can be managed at home. This article explains some common causes of leg pain. It also discusses other symptoms you may experience and how to treat leg pain.

What causes leg pain?

A person's legs against a blue sky
Marija Anicic/Stocksy United

Leg pain or discomfort in your leg is often due to injury, trauma, or an underlying condition. It may also be caused by typical wear and tear due to aging.

Sometimes, pain in your leg can be caused by serious conditions, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Identifying the symptoms can help to diagnose the cause of your leg pain.

At-home treatments, such as resting and applying ice, can help remedy leg pain. However, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor when you experience unexplained leg pain. Doing so can help you rule out any serious underlying conditions.

Leg cramps

Leg cramps are common and are generally harmless. They occur when the muscles in your leg suddenly tighten and become painful. The majority of leg cramps happen at night while you are sleeping.

Leg cramps can occur without any explanation. Common causes of leg cramps include:

Read more about leg cramps.

Peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a narrowing or blockage of the vessels that carry blood between the heart and the legs. The main cause is a buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries.

PAD can happen in any vessel. However, it most commonly occurs in the legs.

Risk factors for PAD include:

Leg pain is one of the main symptoms of PAD. You may experience other symptoms as well, including:

Read more about PAD.

Deep vein thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is when a blood clot forms in a deep vein. Typically, these clots form in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis. However, they can also form in the arm.

The most serious complication of DVT is pulmonary embolism (PE). This is when part of the clot breaks off and travels to your lungs causing a blockage.

Symptoms of DVT are important to know because they can happen to anyone. They occur in the affected part of the body, like the leg, and include:

  • swelling
  • pain
  • tenderness
  • redness or discoloration of the skin

If you experience any symptoms of DVT, contact your doctor right away.

Read more about DVT.

Shin splints

Shin splints refer to pain that runs along the inner edge of the shin bone. They are a common condition related to exercise, especially running.

The main cause of shin splints is when the muscle and bone tissue in the area become overworked. It’s common to develop shin splints if you’ve recently made a change in your physical activity.

The main symptoms of shin splints are pain along the shin bone and possibly mild swelling.

Read more about shin splints.

Hamstring injury

Injuries to the hamstring muscles are common among athletes. They are especially common among those who participate in activities that require sprinting, such as basketball, track, and soccer.

The hamstring is the muscle that runs along the back of the thigh. It helps you extend your leg back and bend your knee.

The main symptom of a hamstring injury is a sudden sharp pain in the back of your thigh. Other symptoms include:

Read about a pulled hamstring.

Sciatic nerve pain

Sciatic nerve pain, or sciatica, occurs when the nerve that runs from your lower back to your feet is irritated or compressed. Typically, sciatic nerve pain gets better within 4–6 weeks. However, occasionally, it can last longer.

People with sciatic nerve pain may experience symptoms in the back of their legs, backside, or feet and toes. You may experience the following symptoms in the affected area:

Generally, the symptoms may worsen when you move, sneeze, or cough.

Other causes of leg pain

Other causes of leg pain include:

Treating leg pain at home

Leg pain can often be treated at home. However, it’s always a good idea to discuss unexplained or new pain with your doctor.

Common ways to treat leg pain at home, especially if it is due to cramps, overuse, or strain, include:

  • resting your leg
  • taking over-the-counter pain medication
  • wearing compression socks
  • applying ice or heat
  • taking a warm bath
  • trying light stretches

When to see a doctor for leg pain

It’s always good to consider contacting your doctor if you have any new or unexplained pain. Leg pain can be a sign of serious underlying health conditions.

Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • swelling
  • pain or tenderness
  • skin redness or discoloration
  • numbness
  • sores or ulcers that don’t heal
  • skin that feels cool to the touch

Frequently asked questions

The questions people frequently asked about leg pain have been reviewed by Angela M. Bell, M.D., FACP.

Does leg pain indicate heart problems?

Leg pain can be a sign of PAD. People with PAD may have a higher risk of developing stroke or heart attack. Leg pain that is associated with PAD may be an indication of heart issues.

Is leg pain a symptom of any disease?

Leg pain can be a sign of artery, vein, or nerve disease.

When should I be concerned about leg pain?

Contact your doctor or seek medical help if you experience:

  • an injury or deep cut with exposed bone or tendon
  • an inability to walk or put weight on your leg
  • any pain, swelling, discoloration, or warmth in your calf
  • a popping or grinding sound in your leg at the time of injury

Summary

There are many causes of leg pain. Common causes include injury, medical conditions, and cramps.

Often, leg pain is not a cause for major concern. However, it can be a sign of a serious condition, such as DVT. This is why it’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor about any new or unexplained leg pain.

If you experience pain with swelling, discoloration, or a change in skin temperature, contact your doctor right away.

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Medical Reviewer: Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 30
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