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Leg Pain Causes

Leg pain is sometimes attributed to medications or an underlying medical condition.

Muscle cramps caused by fatigue can be one of many possible leg pain causes. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Muscle cramps caused by fatigue can be one of many possible leg pain causes.

Leg Pain Causes

Leg pain is a common complaint that patients report to their physicians. Leg pain can involve an aching or cramping sensation that affects a certain part of the leg or pain that radiates through the limb. Common causes of leg pain include muscle cramps, injuries and medical conditions.

A health care provider needs to know the type of leg pain a patient is experiencing as well as any other symptoms in order to determine the best course of treatment. A series of diagnostic tests may be used to find the cause of the leg pain. Tests may include X-rays, bone scans and blood tests. Once a cause has been determined, various treatment options can be used to find relief.

Muscle Cramps

Many patients complain of leg pain caused by a muscle cramp. The common name for a muscle cramp in the leg is a charley horse. The cramp may last anywhere from a few seconds to a prolonged period of time. A leg cramp can be caused by dehydration or the body's lack of essential vitamins or minerals. Low amounts of potassium, calcium or magnesium can cause a muscle cramp.

Normal muscle fatigue or strain can also cause cramping in the legs. This occurs when a leg muscle has been overused or has stayed in the same position for an extended period of time. Some prescription medications have side effects that cause a person to have leg cramps. These medications include diuretics, which can reduce a person's fluid retention, and cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, which have been shown to increase a patient's chance of injuring a muscle.

Treatment for muscle cramps includes stretching and massage. Some people get relief from heat applied to the cramping muscle.

Leg Injuries

Pain in the legs can also result from several different types of injuries. According to Medline Plus, injuries that can cause leg pain include:

  • Tendonitis or an inflamed tendon in the leg
  • Stress fractures
  • Torn or strained leg muscles
  • Shin splints

Shin splints that occur from muscle overuse create pain in the front of the leg along the shin. Tendonitis, stress fractures, torn muscles and strains will produce pain at the site of the injury. Treatment options may include splints, ice or heat treatments, elevating the leg, stretching or over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. The severity of the injury will determine the course of treatment advised by a physician. For minor injuries, resting the leg may be the only treatment needed.

Leg Pain Related to Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, a condition that blocks blood flow in the arteries, causes leg pain called claudication that is felt while walking and exercising. This condition is also referred to as Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). Rest relieves the pain. Diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol are some of the reasons a person may develop PAD. Patients with PAD should be aware that they are at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.

Blood Clots and Leg Pain

Blood clots, a potentially deadly condition, occur in a number of situations, including periods of extended bed rest, sitting for a long time (especially when traveling) and after recent surgery. Signs of a blood clot include pain and sometimes swelling in the affected leg. Treatment for blood clots may involve administration of anti-clotting drugs, such as heparin or warfarin. In rare cases, surgery may be done to remove the clot, administer medications or install a screen to prevent the clot from traveling to the lungs.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral Neuropathy refers to nerve damage that can cause a prickly or tingling type of pain in the legs. Patients at risk for nerve damage include those who smoke, overindulge in alcohol or have diabetes. Treatment involves dealing with the underlying problem, such as getting diabetes under control or stopping smoking. In addition, physical therapy and orthopedic devices may be used to improve leg function.

Other Causes of Leg Pain

Arthritis patients may experience leg pain and need a variety of medications to help relieve the pain and inflammation that occurs in the joints. Varicose veins can cause leg pain that feels like a heavy, aching sensation. Patients can wear support hose and elevate the legs when resting to treat the discomfort of varicose veins. Surgery is usually reserved for severe cases, where skin ulcers cause pain.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sciatic nerve pain that radiates into the leg is a symptom of some other condition, such as a herniated disc, disc degeneration or spinal stenosis. Treatment includes physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants. In some cases, surgery or epidural injections of steroids may be used.

When to Seek Treatment

The New York Time's Health Guide recommends contacting a physician under any of these conditions:

  • Swelling or discoloration in the affected leg
  • Leg pain is accompanied by fever
  • Leg feels cold
  • Pain worsens over time
  • Leg pain does not respond to self-care

Any medications that cause leg pain should be continued until the patient has met with a doctor.

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