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Leg Problems, Noninjury

Leg Problems, Noninjury

Topic Overview

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 Injuries.

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 many causes.

  • 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 bursitis , tendinitis , shin splints , 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 Dehydration.
  • 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 with rest.
  • Other diseases, such as osteoarthritis , rheumatoid arthritis , and lupus , can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. A 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 .

  • Varicose veins can affect both men and women and may only cause a problem in one leg. For more information, see the topic Varicose Veins.
  • 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 Pregnancy-Related Problems.

Many 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 doctor.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a leg problem?
This includes symptoms like pain, numbness, and trouble moving the leg normally.
Yes
Leg problem
No
Leg problem
How old are you?
Less than 5 years
Less than 5 years
5 years or older
5 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Have you injured the leg in the past month?
Yes
Leg injury in the past month
No
Leg injury in the past month
Have you had surgery on the leg in the past month?
If a cast, splint, or brace is causing the problem, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Leg surgery in the past month
No
Leg surgery in the past month
Has sudden, severe weakness or severe numbness affected the whole leg or the whole foot?
Weakness is being unable to use the leg or foot normally no matter how hard you try. Pain or swelling may make it hard to move, but that is not the same thing as weakness.
Yes
Severe or sudden numbness or weakness in the whole leg or foot
No
Severe or sudden numbness or weakness in the whole leg or foot
When did it start?
Think about when you first noticed the weakness or numbness or when you first noticed a major change in the symptoms.
Less than 4 hours ago
Numbness or weakness began less than 4 hours ago
From 4 hours to 2 days (48 hours) ago
Numbness or weakness began from 4 to less than 48 hours ago
From 2 days to 2 weeks ago
Numbness or weakness began 2 days to 2 weeks ago
More than 2 weeks ago
Numbness or weakness began more than 2 weeks ago
Do you still have any weakness or numbness?
Weakness or numbness that does not go away may be more serious.
Yes
Numbness or weakness is now present
No
Numbness or weakness is now present
Has the weakness or numbness:
Gotten worse?
Numbness or weakness is getting worse
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Numbness or weakness is unchanged
Gotten better?
Numbness or weakness is improving
Is the leg blue, very pale, or cold and different from the other leg?
If the leg is in a cast, splint, or brace, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Leg is blue, very pale, or cold and different from other leg
No
Leg is blue, very pale, or cold and different from other leg
Is there any leg pain?
Yes
Leg pain
No
Leg pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
5 to 10: Moderate to severe pain
Moderate to severe pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is increasing
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is improving
Is there a new limp?
Yes
New limp
No
New limp
Do you have any pain in your leg?
Yes
Leg pain
No
Leg pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
How long has the pain lasted?
Less than 2 full days (48 hours)
Pain less than 2 days
2 days to 2 weeks
Pain 2 days to 2 weeks
More than 2 weeks
Pain more than 2 weeks
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is getting worse
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is getting better
Do you think the problem may be causing a fever?
Some bone and joint problems can cause a fever.
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Are you having trouble moving the leg?
Pain and swelling can limit movement.
Yes
Difficulty moving leg
No
Difficulty moving leg
Is it very hard to move or somewhat hard to move?
"Very hard" means you can't move it at all in any direction without causing severe pain. "Somewhat hard" means you can move it at least a little, though you may have some pain when you do it.
Very hard
Very hard to move
Somewhat hard
Somewhat hard to move
How long have you had trouble moving the leg?
Less than 2 days (48 hours)
Difficulty moving leg for less than 2 days
2 days to 2 weeks
Difficulty moving leg for 2 days to less than 2 weeks
More than 2 weeks
Difficulty moving leg for more than 2 weeks
Has the loss of movement been:
Getting worse?
Difficulty moving is getting worse
Staying about the same (not better or worse)?
Difficulty moving is unchanged
Getting better?
Difficulty moving is improving
Do you have any new shortness of breath or chest pain?
When this occurs with swelling or deep pain in one leg, it can be a symptom of a blood clot that has moved from the leg to the lung.
Yes
Shortness of breath or chest pain
No
Shortness of breath or chest pain
Is there any swelling?
Yes
Swelling
No
Swelling
Have you been urinating a lot less than usual lately?
Yes
Decreased urination
No
Decreased urination
Is the swelling getting worse (over hours or days)?
Yes
Swelling is getting worse
No
Swelling is getting worse
Do you think a medicine could be causing the leg problem?
Yes
Medicine may be causing leg problem
No
Medicine may be causing leg problem
Do you have pain, redness, or bleeding along a varicose vein?
Yes
Pain, redness, or bleeding along a varicose vein
No
Pain, redness, or bleeding along a varicose vein
Have you had leg symptoms for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks
No
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Postoperative Problems
Leg Injuries

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Some medicines can cause leg problems. A few examples are:

  • Birth control pills and estrogen. These can increase the risk of blood clots in the leg, which may cause pain or swelling.
  • Calcium channel blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure. These can cause leg swelling.
  • Diuretics. These can cause leg cramps.

When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.

There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Pain in children 3 years and older

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Home Treatment

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 beverages.
    • 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 present.
  • 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 develops.
  • 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 topic Dehydration.

If you think your child is having 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 calcium and magnesium . Talk with your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. He or she may recommend a calcium supplement that does not contain phosphorus.

Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Safety tips
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 recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • 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 doctor):

  • Use a cane or crutch in the hand opposite your painful leg.
  • 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 caused by varicose veins , see the topic Varicose Veins.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • You are unable to use your leg normally.
  • Pain or swelling develops.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Numbness; tingling; or cool, pale skin develops.
  • Symptoms become more frequent or more severe.

Prevention

The following tips may prevent leg problems.

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 and cramping.
  • 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.
  • Use equipment appropriate to your size, strength, and ability.
  • Avoid overusing your leg doing repeated movements that can inflame or irritate your bursa or 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 developing.
  • 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.
  • If 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 sleeping.

Prevent swelling

  • 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 salt substitute.
  • 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 calcium and 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 foods.
  • 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 Fitness.
  • Lose weight. Being overweight increases your risk for leg problems and makes it more difficult to do weight-bearing exercises.
  • 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 Quitting Smoking.

For information on how to prevent blood clots from developing in the legs, see the topic Deep Vein Thrombosis.

Preparing For Your Appointment

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 following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • When did the symptoms occur? What were you doing when the symptoms started?
  • 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 or worse?
  • 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 have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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