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Leg pain

Leg pain
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Leg pain

6-minute read

What is leg pain?

Leg pain can be described as any feeling of pain or discomfort in the area between your groin and ankle.

Depending on the cause, leg pain can vary from moderate to severe, and the symptoms may be continuous (non-stop) or intermittent (come and go).

Leg pain can be acute, meaning it comes on quickly and then goes away. Or it can last for weeks or months. Then it is called chronic leg pain. For some people, chronic leg pain can last for years and can affect their lives.

What symptoms are related to leg pain?

Leg pain can affect just a small area of the leg, or it can cover a wide area or even the whole leg. The pain can be dull or sharp, or it might be burning, tingly or numb. You might also have pain in your buttock, lower back or spine, or foot. Make a note if both legs look the same, or if one is different from the other.

Other signs and symptoms that can occur with leg pain include:

  • swelling
  • varicose veins
  • sores or ulcers
  • redness, swelling or warmth
  • feeling generally unwell, if you have an infection or fracture
  • changes in the colour of the leg or feet if it’s a problem with your nerves
  • a slow healing wound

What causes leg pain?

Here are some common causes of sore legs:.

  • Cramp: this is when the muscles suddenly contract. The pain is normally felt in the calf and will go away quite quickly by itself.
  • Muscle sprains and strains. The leg might be very tender and you might also have a muscle spasm, swelling, or trouble moving the leg.
  • Minor injury such as a knock, bump or bruise: There may be redness, swelling or discolouration at the site of the injury.
  • Fracture: A bone break or crack may also cause, swelling, deformity, bruising and loss of power or movement to the leg.
  • Infection: Ulcers, infected wounds or blisters can also cause the area to be red, swollen and warm. You may have a fever and be generally unwell.
  • Injuries in nearby joints, bones or muscles: Surrounding muscles, ligaments and tendons can develop little knots that are very painful; pain down the back of the leg can be caused by problems in joints in the back or sciatica; problems with the ankle, knee or hip can also cause pain in the leg.
  • Using your leg too little: You may also have pins and needles or muscle stiffness.
  • Problems with blood vessels, such as blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) or poor circulation: You may also have swelling, pressure, tenderness or a pale leg.
  • Varicose veins: The pain may be aching, throbbing or burning. You may also have heaviness, cramping or restless legs, swollen ankles, darkening of the skin over the veins and an itchy rash.
  • Problems with nerves, such as diabetic neuropathy: You may also have weakness, numbness or tingling.
  • Compartment syndrome: The pain will be intense and increase when you stretch the leg and the skin may feel tingly, burn or numb. The skin may look pale and feel cold.
  • Growing pains (in children): The child may have aching or burning sensation in the muscles of the thighs, calves or feet, usually at night.

Pain in the leg can also be a part of chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

When should I see a doctor?

Seek medical attention urgently if you have sore or aching legs and:

  • the leg is swollen
  • it looks deformed or you can’t cannot use it properly
  • it is unusually cool or pale
  • it is numb and weak
  • it is red and warm
  • both legs are swollen and you have breathing problems
  • the pain is getting worse

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have signs of infection, like a fever, calf pain after going on a long journey, or any serious symptoms that come on with no explanation.

How is leg pain treated?

Treatment for leg pain depends on the cause. Sore or aching legs can often be treated at home, but if pain is sudden, severe, or persistent, or if there are other symptoms, medical attention may be necessary.

If you suddenly develop pain from an injury, use the RICER method:

  • Rest: Avoid moving the leg.
  • Ice: Put an icepack on the sore area for 15-20 minutes at a time, using a covered icepack or bag of frozen peas. Repeat every 2 to 4 hours for 2 to 3 days.
  • Compression: Bandage the area firmly.
  • Elevation: Keep the leg above the hip.
  • Referral: Have the injury checked by your doctor.

You can take simple painkillers like paracetamol or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen.

If you have muscle cramps, gently stretching the muscles should help. This is true for many other types of leg pain, too.

If you have pins and needles, just moving around should ease the discomfort.

If the pain doesn't go away, your doctor might involve a physiotherapist, podiatrist or other health professional, depending on the cause. You might need medication such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatories, and some people may need surgery.

When should I see a doctor?

Sometimes, leg pain can signal something more serious like a fracture, deep vein thrombosis or compartment syndrome.

Seek medical attention urgently if:

  • the leg is swollen
  • it looks deformed or you can't use it properly
  • it is unusually cool or pale
  • it is numb and weak
  • it is red and warm
  • both legs are swollen and you have breathing problems
  • the pain is getting worse

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have signs of infection, like a fever, calf pain after going on a long journey, or any serious symptoms that come on with no explanation.

Can leg pain be prevented?

You can prevent strains and injuries by always warming up before exercise and cooling down and stretching afterwards. Build up physical activity gradually and do not take on too much too quickly.

It is a good idea to replace worn out shoes and wear appropriate footwear for the activity you're doing.

Looking after your health generally — getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, getting some regular exercise, not smoking, being a healthy weight — might also help.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2021

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