When leg pain occurs, it can significantly impact the individual’s quality of life. The pain may be so severe that it prevents the individual from engaging in ordinary activities, such as work, socializing or recreation. Pain can be acute, from a sudden injury or condition, or it can be chronic, lasting for a long period of time. When pain occurs, medical attention is generally required to diagnose the cause of the problem and determine the appropriate treatment.
Definition & Facts
Leg pain can be defined as any discomfort in the legs, whether short-term or long-term, that causes loss of comfort, mobility or function. Leg pain can occur in any structure in the legs, such as in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bone, veins or nerves.
An injury or disease condition in any part of the leg can involve any combination of these structures. Leg pain can occur in young children, adults or in older people. The most common cause of leg pain is muscle strain, usually from overuse or athletic activity. Minor leg pain is generally relieved by over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Any severe or lasting pain should be seen by a doctor.
- Bone fractures
- Growing pains in children
- Muscle cramps
- Damage in the hip joint
- Knee damage, such as ACL tears or injuries of the patella
- Osteoarthritis deterioration
- Bone cancer
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Infection within the leg
- Knee bursitis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Torn meniscus
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Shin splints
- Spinal stenosis
- Varicose veins
- Herniated discs in the spine
- Legg-Calve-Perthes disease
- Paget’s disease
- Osgood-Schlatter disease
When to see a doctor
You should consult with a physician about leg pain whenever the discomfort cannot be handled with over-the-counter pain medications, when swelling indicates inflammation, when you cannot move the leg in a normal fashion or when the discomfort prevents you from engaging in your normal activities.
Pain and swelling in the legs can be a symptom of a potentially serious medical condition, such as a blood clot that can travel to other parts of the body. Prompt medical attention can be critical in preventing a serious medical emergency. Ongoing or recurring leg pain can be a sign of degenerative bone conditions that will only get worse over time. A visit to an orthopedic physician can help to determine the source of the problem and treatments that can alleviate chronic pain.
In some cases, surgery may be necessary to repair muscles and ligaments, remove damaged tissue or restore joint function. Your physician may order laboratory tests, X-rays, MRI tests, CT scans or other diagnostic measures to pinpoint the source of the pain. Other specialized tests can diagnose nerve disorders and vein problems.
Treatment & Therapy
Because of the wide variety of causes of leg pain, the treatments also cover a large number of options:
- Medications – Your physician can prescribe a number of anti-inflammatory medications that can help to reduce discomfort. When the leg injury is severe and disabling, the doctor may administer corticosteroid injections that help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Hyaluronic injections may be used to replace the cushioning fluids in leg joints that allow easy, pain-free movement.
- Treatment of underlying conditions – If the physician has diagnosed a disease that cause leg pain, he or she will utilize the standard treatment for the disease, which will, in turn, help to alleviate the leg pain. Treatment may include a number of medications and other therapies.
- Treating the infection – In cases of infection, the physician may prescribe antibiotics, either in topical, oral or injectable form to eliminate the pathogens causing the problem.
- Physical therapy – The special exercises and treatments provided by a physical therapist can help to relieve pain and immobility from a variety of conditions that cause leg pain. Therapy can be done in a PT treatment center and supplemented with exercises done at home.
- Surgery – Some causes of leg pain, just as back problems, joint degeneration or vein disease may require surgery in order to relieve the leg pain. In some cases, joint replacement surgery is needed to restore function and relieve pain.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
Following your physician’s instructions carefully can help to prevent recurring problems with leg pain. This may include taking medications that your doctor prescribes, undergoing physical therapy, resting the affected leg or avoiding activities that can trigger leg pain. To protect yourself against leg pain, you should always:
- Know your physical limits. Many individuals become injured by taking on activities that are far above their skill or activity level.
- Exercise regularly to keep leg muscles strong. Individuals who have sedentary jobs, who then engage in athletic activities on weekends often acquire strains and sprains of the leg structures.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a growing problem in the United States and around the world. Educate yourself on the best weight for your size and age. Learn about eating healthy foods that help to maintain an appropriate body weight. Cut out snacks that are high in calories and low in nutritional value.
- Take care of minor injuries immediately by initiating the R.I.C.E. treatment. This stands for “rest” of the affected area, “icing” the area to reduce swelling and pain, “compression” of the leg with a bandage or brace, and “elevation” of the leg above the level of the heart to reduce swelling and promote healing. If pain continues, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.