Lower leg muscle pain can arise with a variety of abnormalities and conditions. The causes commonly involve the muscle tissue itself or the blood vessels and other structures associated with the muscles. Many causes of lower leg muscle pain are temporary and quickly resolve with home treatment. In some cases, lower leg muscle pain may indicate a medical emergency. Severe or rapidly increasing lower leg muscle pain warrants urgent medical evaluation.
Everyone occasionally experiences muscle pain and soreness caused by overexertion. This type of pain typically develops after engaging in activities to a greater extent than usual or participating in an activity not usually undertaken. Muscle pain caused by overexertion, or delayed onset muscle soreness, arises from microscopic injury to the muscle fibers, according to a 2002 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Activities that involve repetitive squatting, jumping or running commonly provoke delayed onset muscle soreness in the lower legs. Symptoms typically begin within 24 to 48 hours after the activity and resolve within one week.
A muscle contusion, or bruise, occurs when a direct blow to the lower leg causes muscle bleeding. The area typically is tender to pressure and swells. Bleeding into the overlying skin causes a purple bruise. Rest and ice can help reduce pain and swelling. Although most muscle contusions represent minor injuries that heal without complications, a severe muscle contusion may require medical treatment, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Acute Compartment Syndrome
Rapid bleeding associated with a severe muscle contusion may lead to the development of acute compartment syndrome. With this condition, blood accumulation increases the pressure within the closed space that encompasses the muscles, blood vessels and nerves. High pressure within the compartment compresses the blood vessels, blocking flow. Loss of blood flow can rapidly progress to permanent tissue damage.
Acute compartment syndrome of the lower leg causes severe pain, which intensifies with when moving the toes, according to the National Library of Medicine encyclopedia Medline Plus. Other symptoms include firm swelling, skin tension and paleness, and decreased sensation in the affected area. Acute compartment syndrome usually requires surgery to open the compartment and relieve the internal pressure. Surgeons typically leave the skin wounds open until the swelling within the compartment resolves. The patient undergoes a second operation for wound closure.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral arterial disease is a form of atherosclerosis, a condition in which fat builds up in the arteries, causing loss of elasticity and partially obstructed blood flow. Peripheral arterial disease most frequently affects the blood vessels of the legs, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The most common symptom of peripheral arterial disease of the legs is claudication, aching or cramping in the leg muscles brought on by exercise. Claudication commonly affects the calf muscles. The pain of peripheral arterial disease typically resolves with rest. Smoking remains the leading risk factor for peripheral arterial disease.
Is This an Emergency?
- Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Morphologic and Mechanical Basis of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Muscle Contusion (Bruise)
- Medline Plus: Compartment Syndrome
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Peripheral Arterial Disease
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Compartment Syndrome