In addition to injuries, many medical conditions can trigger leg pain and aching. Chronic arthritic conditions, infections and blood vessel abnormalities are common causes of leg pain. Diagnosis of the cause of leg pain begins with a thorough physical examination and consideration of the onset and progression of symptoms. Blood tests, x-rays and imaging studies may be included in the diagnostic workup. Determining the cause of leg pain leads to appropriate medical management to minimize or alleviate this potentially disabling symptom.
The term arthritis describes a group of conditions that cause joint inflammation and associated pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 52 million Americans are living with some form of arthritis. The most common type is the wear-and-tear form, or osteoarthritis. Other types include rheumatoid, juvenile and psoriatic arthritis, and gout and pseudogout. The hips, knees and/or ankles may be affected. Symptoms include aching pain, joint stiffness, swelling, limited joint movement and joint deformities. Other disorders that affect the body can also cause arthritic joint pain in the legs, such as Lyme disease, lupus erythematosus and fibromyalgia.
Bone and Tendon Disorders
Stress fractures in the legs are hairline cracks in the bones that typically occur with overuse, such as long-distance running. Tendons of the leg can also become chronically inflammed with overuse, causing tendinopathy. Both conditions can cause persistent or recurring leg pain. Infection in the leg bones, termed osteomyelitis, may cause rapidly progressive aching, pain and fever. Bloodstream infections that seed the bone with infectious organisms and open-leg trauma that provides a direct route of entry into the bone are common causes of osteomyelitis. Bone tumors of the leg -- cancerous or noncancerous -- typically cause slowly progressive pain and aching.
Blood Vessels Disorders
Inflammation of a vein due to the presence of a blood clot is termed thrombophlebitis, a disorder that commonly affects the legs. Superficial thrombophlebitis involves veins near the skin surface. Deep vein thrombosis describes phlebitis of the deep veins. Both types of thrombophlebitis may cause aching leg pain and swelling. In some cases, extensive varicose veins can also lead to lower leg pain and swelling, especially after prolonged standing. Atherosclerosis of the arteries that supply the legs are another common cause of aching and pain in the leg -- especially in the calf. This condition, known as peripheral arterial disease, occurs when fatty blockages form in the arteries and diminish blood flow to the muscles. Smoking is an important risk factor for this painful condition.
When to See Your Doctor
See your doctor for any persistent or recurring leg pain to determine the cause and appropriate treatment. Seek medical care right away if your leg pain is severe, related to an injury, or is accompanied by a fever, leg swelling or shortness of breath.
- Family Practice Notebook: Leg Pain
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: FastStats Arthritis
- Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal: Tendon Structure, Disease, and Imaging
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital: Osteomyelitis
- The Merck Manual Professional Edition: Superficial Venous Thrombosis
- The Merck Manual Professional Edition: Deep Venous Thrombosis
- The Merck Manual Professional Edition: Peripheral Arterial Disease