Types and causes of leg pain

Pain is a typical symptom of a wound or disease in any part of the body.

There are many causes of pain to the legs.

Sports injuries include traumatic causes. Other triggers can affect the blood vessels , nerves, muscles , joints, soft tissues, or bones.

The medication time depends on the source of the pain in the leg.

Leg pain can often be treated at home, but medical attention may be needed if pain is sudden, severe, or persistent, or if there are other symptoms.

This article will look at some common causes of pain in the legs and certain home treatments.

Important facts about leg pain

Here are a few key points regarding pain in the legs. More information is in the main article.

  • The causes of leg pain can be musculoskeletal, neurological, or vascular.
  • Shin splints and stress fractures can result from repetitive sports, such as running.
  • Leg pain can sometimes indicate a serious vascular problems. These can occasionally be fatal, and they require medical intervention.
  • Many types of pain can be treated at home, but severe or persistent pain can indicate a more serious condition.

What is leg pain?

A lady having leg pain
Leg pain has many different causes and can be managed at home.

Pain occurs when nerves respond to stimuli such as high pressure , high or low temperatures, and chemicals that can be released through damage to the tissue.

Leg pain could be sharp, dull, numbing, tingling, burning, radiating, or aching.

It can also be acute, meaning sudden and short-term, or chronic and persistent, too. Severity can be rated from 1 to 10 on a scale, or from mild to severe.

Injury sustained during a game of sport or in an accident is usually both acute and traumatic. The person can identify the cause quite often.

Certain factors, such as peripheral arterial disease ( PAD), appear to build up over time, though the patient may be able to recognise the onset of pain.

Many sports injuries, such as repetitive strain injuries and stress fractures, build up over time. If the patient does not rest or seek care, traumatic injuries may also become long-term, or chronic, problems.

It’s important to be aware of what happened before and around the time that leg pain emerged, as this can help decide when to look for medical treatment.


For the most part, leg pain may be categorized as neurological, musculoskeletal, or vascular or these may overlap.

Musculoskeletal pain: Examples include crepitus, known by a knee popping or cracking tone, or arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects the hip, knee, or ankle joints. For example, if a muscle, tendon, or ligament is damaged during a fall, then any musculoskeletal pain will be present.

Night cramps, compartment syndrome and stress fractures are also problems with the musculoskeletal system.

Vascular pain: Causes include PAD, deep vein thrombosis ( DVT), cellulitis, infections, varicose veins, and varicose eczema, where pain is accompanied by discoloration of the skin.

Neurological pain: situations include restless legs syndrome, where the legs twitch uncontrollably, neuropathy, or nerve damage, and sciatic nerve pain. Neurological pain may even occur while resting.

Here we’ll look in more depth on each of these.


Various sources of pain in the leg can have common symptoms. Having a correct diagnosis, if possible, increases the likelihood of getting appropriate treatment. Identifying the symptoms and their onset might help to find a suitable diagnosis.

Leg cramps, or Charley horses

Charley horses are transient pain episodes that can last for a few minutes. The muscle tends to tighten and go into spasm, usually the calf at the back of the lower leg.

Cramps are more common at night and in older people. An estimated 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 experience night cramps and 40 percent experience more than 3 attacks a week.


Due to poor circulation PAD can cause pain in the leg. This can be fatal without treatment. Intermittent claudication is key symptom.

Intermittent claudication induces restriction of the blood flow to the muscles of the legs. The consequent loss of oxygen and nutrients is causing pain.

Claudication involves:

  • a cramp-like muscle pain during exercise or exertion
  • pain in the buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet
  • pain when walking or climbing stairs

The cramps consistently occur after the same walking distances, and they often ease on resting.


DVT causes one type of leg pain and can become a blood clot on the lung if not quickly treated.

DVT refers to a blood clot within the leg’s deep veins. This can appears after, for example, having spent a long time sitting on a long-distance flight.

Symptoms include swelling, on one side of the body, and a soft, painful feeling. This can only happen when one walks or stands up.

The clot may dissolve on its own, but emergency attention is needed if the person experiences dizziness and sudden shortness of breath, or if they cough up the blood.

These may be signs that DVT has developed into a pulmonary embolism, or a lung blood clot.

Vascular problems can be severe. It can present both PAD and DVT without symptoms. People whose lifestyle or medical history makes them vulnerable to leg vascular problems should be aware of any signs they may have.

Shin splints

Engaging in severe exertion during sports can result in different types of injury.

Jogging and running can generate forces of repeated impact overloading the muscles and tendons. Shin splints in the muscles produce severe, localized tenderness and sometimes bone pain is commonly felt around the shin bone.

One apparent cause such as a fracture can not explain the shin pain.

Fractures and stress fractures

For example , heavy pressure from a fall may trigger fractures. Some fractures are evident quickly and rapidly, with extreme bruising, swelling and deformation. These typically receive urgent medical attention.

Stress fractures are small fractures that may result from repetitive stresses that are sustained during sports, often when activity intensity increases too fast.

There is no major injury, although there are occasional fractures. Throughout each exercise session the pain can begin at an earlier level, and gradually become present all the time.

Popliteus tendinitis

This causes knee pain while running downhill. This is caused by inflammation of the tendon of popliteus which is important for stability of the knee.

Hamstring strain

Acute trauma could result in sprains and strains. A sprain signifies stretching or tearing. A strain is Muscle or tendon injury.

A hamstring strain often associated with running can cause acute pain in the back of the thigh muscle, usually due to a partial tear.

Sprains and strains typically evolve before an exercise due to insufficient strength preparation, over-stretching or not warming up. Exercising when injured raises the risk.

Compartment syndrome

If a leg injury causes swelling, dangerous levels of muscle pressure may lead to acute or chronic syndrome in the compartment.

This could be due to a fracture or severe bruising.

Swelling allows pressure to build up before the flow of blood to the muscle tissue is cut off, depleting the oxygen and nourishing muscles. The pain, considering the injury, can be unexpectedly serious.

In severe cases numbness and paralysis may follow early pain. It can result in permanent muscle damage.

Sciatic nerve pain

Sciatica happens when pressure is put on a nerve, often in the spine, resulting in pains running down the leg from the hip to the foot.

It can happen by “pinching” a nerve in a muscle spasm, or by a herniated disk.

Long-term consequences include strain on other areas of the body, as the gait changes to make up for the pain

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can lead to pain and swelling in the legs.

Home treatment

Many cases of leg pain can be resolved at home, without medical intervention.

Self-help for muscle cramps

Cramps, or Charley horses, can be alleviated by stretching and massaging the leg.
Cramps, or Charley horses, can be alleviated by stretching and massaging the leg.

When severe causes of cramps are ruled out, methods of self-help may be necessary.

Painkillers aren’t going to improve leg cramps because they start suddenly, but stretching and muscle massaging can help.

To relieve the pain when cramps occur:

  • Hold the toe and pull it up towards the body, while straightening the leg.
  • Walk around on heels until the cramp eases off.

To prevent cramps:

  • Always stretch and warm up before and after exercising.
  • Avoid dehydration by drinking 8 to 12 glasses of water a day.
  • Regularly stretch and massage the legs.

Sports injury treatment

Minor sports injuries, such as leg sprains and strains can be treated with RICE:

  • Rest: to prevent further injury and allows healing time to reduce swelling.
  • Ice: to reduces swelling, inflammation, and pain. Applied for up 20 minutes wrapped in a cloth, not directly on the skin.
  • Compression: use an elastic bandage, firmly but not tightly wrapped, to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Elevation: lift the leg above the level of the heart so that gravity assists with draining, to reduce swelling and pain.

Drugs such as acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help with some pain, but should be sought specialist medical advice if pain persists for more than 72 hours.

A return to action should be graded in its intensity, safely building flexibility, strength and endurance.

Circulatory problems

Claudication and other signs of vascular disease need medical treatment, due to the risk of heart attack or stroke.

To reduce cardiovascular risk factors, people are advised to:

  • avoid or quit smoking
  • do moderate exercise, as recommended by a doctor
  • manage levels of blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and lipids
  • control blood pressure
  • adhere to antiplatelet therapy to reduce blood clots, if appropriate
  • Exercise and a healthful diet are beneficial. Those who have a treatment plan for a cardiovascular or other condition should follow it carefully.

There are several common reasons for leg pain and the symptoms sometimes overlap. The individual should see a doctor if they persist, worsen or make life difficult.

A strategy for differential diagnosis can help rule out inappropriate causes, narrow down the possibilities and provide timely response.

Chukwuebuka Martins
Chukwuebuka Martinshttps://www.nccmed.com/
Chukwuebuka Martins is a writer, researcher, and health enthusiast who specializes in human physiology. He takes great pleasure in penning informative articles on many aspects of physical wellness, which he then thoroughly enjoys sharing to the general public.

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