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Leg Problems, Noninjury

Overview

Minor leg problems, such as sore muscles, are common. Leg problems often occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, and work or projects around the home. They also can be caused by injuries.

Leg problems may be minor or serious. They 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. That's 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 being too active or by the rapid growth of bone and muscle that occurs in children.

It may help you better understand leg problems if you know what the bones of the thigh and lower leg look like, as well as the muscles and tendons. Leg problems that aren't related to a specific injury have many causes.

  • Problems can occur when you "overdo" an activity, do the same activity over and over again, or increase your exercise. This may be called an overuse injury, even though you didn't have an actual injury. Examples include bursitis, tendinitis, shin splints, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and other muscle strains or tears. Muscle cramps can be caused by activity or dehydration, especially when you exercise in the heat.
  • Problems that affect the blood vessels (vascular disease) may 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. But 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, also may increase your risk for blood clots. So can not being able to move a limb for a long time, such as when using a cast or splint.
    • Problems affecting the arteries (peripheral arterial disease) can cause cramping pain. It occurs with predictable amounts of exercise, such as walking a short distance, but it 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 fast-growing children and teens. Doctors don't know why children have growing pains. 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've been sitting or standing for long periods of time or during hot or humid weather. Sitting or lying down and propping up 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. They may cause a problem in only one leg.
  • The swelling in the feet and ankles that occurs during pregnancy usually gets worse toward the end of the pregnancy and goes away after the baby is born.

Many medicines can cause problems in the legs. For example, birth control pills and other hormones can increase your risk of blood clots. And water pills (diuretics), heart medicines, and cholesterol-lowering medicines (statins) can cause muscle cramps.

Some leg problems only occur at night.

  • Restless legs syndrome causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move the legs. This can interrupt sleep and 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 give you 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 fall asleep or wake up. They can be painful. These cramps can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Walking or stretching your leg can sometimes help relieve these cramps.

Most minor leg problems will heal on their own. Home treatment may be all that's needed. But serious leg problems also may occur. They need to be checked by a doctor soon.

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

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
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

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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.
  • Fluoroquinolones. These can increase the risk for tendinitis or tendon rupture.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Leg Injuries
Postoperative Problems

Self-Care

Try the following tips to help relieve minor leg pain, swelling, stiffness, or muscle cramps.

  • Remove all jewelry.

    Remove rings, anklets, and any other jewelry that goes around a lower extremity. It will be hard to remove the jewelry after swelling starts.

  • Rest.

    It's important to rest and protect the affected area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.

  • Use ice.

    Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs right away to prevent or reduce swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.

  • Wrap the affected area.

    Compression, or wrapping the area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help reduce swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, because that can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, and swelling in the area below the bandage.

  • Elevate the affected area.

    Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help reduce swelling. Prop up the area on pillows while you apply ice and anytime you sit or lie down.

  • Reduce stress on your leg.
    • Use a cane or crutch in the hand opposite your painful leg.
    • Use two crutches, keeping weight off the leg. You can get canes or crutches from most drugstores. Crutches are recommended if a cane causes you to walk with a limp.
  • Avoid more swelling.

    For 48 hours, avoid things that might increase swelling. These things include hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, and drinks that contain alcohol.

  • Apply heat.

    After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat. You can start gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and keep flexibility. Some experts advise switching between heat and cold treatments.

  • Rub the area.

    Gently rub sore or pulled muscles to relieve pain. But don't 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.

  • Treat your child's growing pains.

    If you think that your child is having growing pains, try warmth and massage to relieve discomfort in the legs. Don't rub or massage a calf that is swollen.

  • Treat leg cramps.
    • Try wearing support stockings during the day. And take frequent rest periods (with your feet up).
    • If leg cramps occur during pregnancy, make sure to eat a diet rich in calcium and magnesium. Talk with your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. The doctor may recommend one that doesn't contain phosphorus.
  • Don't smoke or use other tobacco products.

    Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair.

If you need to use a wrap, cane, or crutches for more than 48 hours, you may have a more serious injury that needs to be checked by a doctor.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse pain or swelling.
  • New signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, pus, or a fever.
  • New or worse numbness, tingling, or cool and pale skin.
  • Movement or strength decreases.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

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Credits

Current as of: March 9, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine

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