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 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
- 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
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
- 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
- Other diseases, such as
rheumatoid arthritis, and
lupus, can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
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 and are probably caused by differences in growth rates
of muscle, bone, and soft tissue. 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 can affect both men and women and
may only cause a problem in one leg. For more information, see the topic
- 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
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), heart medicines, and cholesterol-lowering
medicines (statins) 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
Check your symptoms to decide if and when
you should see a doctor.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
If you think your child is
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
magnesium. Talk with your doctor about taking a
calcium supplement. He or she may recommend a calcium supplement that does not
Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it
decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
| Try a non-prescription
medicine to help treat your fever or pain:|
- Acetaminophen, such as
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs):
- Ibuprofen, such as Advil or
- Naproxen, such as Aleve or Naprosyn
- Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
| Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:|
- Carefully read and follow all directions
on the medicine bottle and box.
- Do not take more than the
- Do not take a medicine if you have had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take
- If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other
than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
- Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
Reduce stress on your leg (until you can get advice from your
- Use a cane or crutch in the hand opposite your
- 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.
For more information about the home treatment of problems
varicose veins, see the topic
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
- You are unable to use your leg
- 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
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
- 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.
equipment appropriate to your size, strength, and ability.
overusing your leg doing repeated movements that can inflame or irritate your
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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- Lose weight. Being overweight
increases your risk for leg problems and makes it more difficult to do
- 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
For information on how to prevent
blood clots from developing in the legs, see the topic
Deep Vein Thrombosis.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
- What are your main symptoms?
- When did
the symptoms occur? What were you doing when the symptoms
- 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
- 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
- Back Problems and Injuries
- Hip Problems, Age 11 and Younger
- Hip Problems, Age 12 and Older
- Knee Problems and Injuries
- Pregnancy-Related Problems
- Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Noninjury
|By: ||Healthwise Staff ||Current as of: February 6, 2013|
|Medical Review: ||William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine|
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine