Leg pain is a common affliction among Americans, with a large proportion of the population experiencing some degree of leg pain at some point in their lifetime. Leg pain can be a result of an injury or a symptom of another condition. Leg pain can be temporary, going away by itself as an injury heals, or chronic and harder to treat.
The most common kind of leg pain is caused by muscle cramping. This is usually not a serious condition, as it resolves on its own as an overworked muscle recovers. Certain factors, such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and the use of certain medications such as diuretics and statin drugs for high cholesterol may make you more prone to developing muscle cramps. To prevent muscle cramps when you are exercising, make sure to stay hydrated and stretch or warm up before strenuous physical activity.
Leg pain is also commonly caused by injuries of the leg, which may be acute injuries or overuse injuries that develop over time. Examples of injuries that can cause leg pain include muscle strains, shin splints, stress fractures, tendinitis, growth plate fractures and broken bones. Broken bones cause acute pain that can be quite severe, while stress fractures are cracks in the bone that take some time to develop and are more difficult to diagnose than more severe fractures. Growth plate fractures, also called epiphyseal fractures, are common in children, whose leg bones are still growing. These injuries are potentially serious because if they are not treated properly, they can result in the injured leg not growing as much as the healthy one or becoming crooked. Muscle strains are different from cramps in that they involve tearing of a muscle. Tendonitis is inflammation of muscle tendons, which may cause leg pain. Shin splints are an overuse injury of muscles, fascia and tendons in the front of the lower leg caused by certain sports and activities.
In addition to injuries due to accidents and sports injuries, certain medical conditions may cause leg pain. There are several different types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gouty arthritis, that may cause pain in the hip, ankle or knee joints. Infections in a joint capsule, leg bone or other tissues of the leg may cause leg pain. An infection of bone is called osteomyelitis; this can be a serious condition. An infection that affects bone can either spread to the bone from surrounding tissues or blood. A bone infection can also be contracted as a surgical complication.
Some leg pain is actually caused by a back problem; if someone experiences a herniated vertebral disc, this can apply pressure to a nerve that supplies muscles and skin in the legs and cause a type of nerve pain called “sciatica.” Other common causes of nerve damage that may cause pain in the legs include diabetes complications and complications from alcoholism and smoking. Nerve damage may be experienced as tingling, numbness or pain.
Sometimes, leg pain may be caused by problems with the vascular supply to the leg. Atherosclerosis can narrow or block arteries all over the body. If this occurs in the coronary arteries, heart disease can result, but if this occurs in the limbs, it can cause leg pain. Blood clots, or thromboses, can have a similar effect due to decreased blood flow to the legs. In some cases, varicose veins can also cause pain in the legs, but this does not happen in all cases.
In rare cases, leg pain can be caused by bone cysts or tumors. Tumors can be benign or malignant. For example, osteoid osteoma is a benign bone tumor which causes bone pain and usually resolves on its own but may require surgery in some cases. Osteosarcoma, on the other hand, is a cancerous bone tumor that is diagnosed most often in teenagers. Osteosarcoma often has similar symptoms as osteoid osteoma, but requires more extensive treatment. Other rare medical conditions exist which may cause leg pain. For example, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease is a problem affecting mostly young boys in which the blood supply to the top of the femur is diminished, causing damage to the thigh bone.
The treatment options for leg pain depend on the cause of the condition. Some causes of leg pain, such as muscle cramps, require no treatment but rest, while others may require medication or surgery. Some causes of leg pain, such as sports injury-related cases, can be prevented with proper hydration, technique and safety equipment. It is also important to keep conditions such as diabetes under control to prevent nerve damage in the limbs.