Leg Problems, Noninjury
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 the structure of the leg to better understand leg problems. See pictures of:
Leg problems that are not related to a specific injury have many causes.
- Overuse injuries may occur when you "overdo" an activity, do the same activity repeatedly, or increase your exercise. Examples of overuse injuries include bursitis, tendinitis, shin splints, stress fractures, or plantar fasciitis. 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 shin bone (Osgood-Schlatter disease) and swelling and pain in the knee joint (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). Growing pains are common among rapidly growing children and adolescents 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 abdomen 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.
- 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. However, serious leg problems also may occur and require prompt evaluation by a doctor.
Use the Check Your Symptoms section 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.
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, as 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 more difficult to remove the jewelry once swelling develops.
- Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow.
- 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.
|Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:|
|Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:|
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.
Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment
Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms 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 or tingling develops.
- Cool, pale skin develops.
- Symptoms continue after 1 to 2 weeks of home treatment.
- Symptoms become more frequent or more severe.
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, examine 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.
- 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 yoghourt; 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.
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?
|Author||Jan Nissl, RN, BS|
|Editor||Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA|
|Associate Editor||Tracy Landauer|
|Primary Medical Reviewer||William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine|
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine|
|Last Updated||August 4, 2008|