Leg pain can range from severe and stabbing to mild and dull; regardless, it can interfere with your day. While much leg pain is due to an injury or overuse, persistent leg pain may be due to a vitamin deficiency.
Restless legs syndrome, muscle cramping or nerve pain can result because you're not getting enough of certain nutrients. If you have severe leg pain that interferes with your ability to walk or sleep, consult your doctor and consider adding foods with certain nutrients.
Leg pain and cramps may be a sign of a vitamin deficiency, such as vitamin D, or a mineral deficit, such as iron, folate or magnesium. If you have persistent leg pain not due to an injury, talk to your doctor about having blood tests done that measure your levels of these nutrients.
Defining Leg Pain
Leg pain comes in many forms. You recognize the signs of an injury, such as a pulled muscle, tendinitis, shinsplints or a fracture because they usually come on suddenly and are accompanied by swelling and acute pain. But leg pain due to a vitamin deficiency is different.
You may experience cramping, especially during activity, tingling or pins-and-needles sensations. Leg pain may also be due to restless legs syndrome.
Restless legs syndrome is characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs. Symptoms usually are worse at night. You may experience involuntary jerking and pain that interferes with sleep — and often symptoms get better once you start moving.
Iron Deficiency and Leg Pain
The discomfort and pain associated with restless legs syndrome is traceable to low iron levels in the brain, stated a paper in Movement Disorders in September 2014. This is especially true for women who experience restless legs syndrome pain during pregnancy.
A study published in Sleep Medicine in May 2015 detected iron deficiency in pregnant women who had restless legs syndrome and concluded that iron level imbalances play a role in the presence of the leg condition.
Taking iron supplements, as directed by a doctor, may improve restless legs syndrome pain. A review published in a January 2019 issue of the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews showed that iron therapy probably improves the symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Consult your doctor to find out the right dosage for you so you get enough for effective treatment but don't get the side effects of taking too much.
Read more: Causes of Restless Legs After Exercise
Vitamin D and Muscle Pain
A lack of vitamin D may cause muscle pain, including in the legs. Too little of this "sunshine" vitamin is associated with restless legs syndrome, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published in April 2018. Your body produces vitamin D in response to exposure to sunlight; you can also get it from foods such as fortified milk and egg yolks. People who live in northern climates or don't spend a lot of time outside can easily become deficient in vitamin D.
Leg pain in children due to growing pains may also be aggravated if they have insufficient levels of vitamin D. Medical Principles and Practice published a study in June 2015 that found in the case of 120 children, correcting the vitamin D insufficiency reduced the intensity of growing pains in the children's legs.
Magnesium and Leg Pain
Magnesium is a mineral important in energy production, DNA and RNA synthesis and reproduction. It plays a role in muscular contraction and nerve transmission, so if you have an imbalance you may experience limb pain. Symptoms of deficiency, explains a comprehensive paper in Nutrients published September 2015, include:
- Cramps in the soles of the feet
- Leg cramps
- Muscle spasms in the calves
You may also have misfiring in the facial muscles, backaches and neck pain due to low levels of magnesium.
The online publication StatPearls updated in July 2019 notes magnesium deficiency as a potential reason for restless legs syndrome, too. Good sources of magnesium include leafy greens — like spinach — whole grains, legumes, nuts — like almonds —and seeds. Adults need between 310 and 420 milligrams of magnesium daily, depending on age and gender, notes the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.
If you're afraid you might be deficient in magnesium, talk to your doctor about adding a magnesium supplement to your routine.
Vitamin B12 and Tingling Legs
Vitamin D, magnesium and iron are all likely suspects when it comes to leg pain due to vitamin deficiency. But, you may also consider a few other potential nutrient insufficiencies.
Vitamin B12, for example, contributes to your production of red blood cells and nerve function, as well as other important body activity. You, as an adult, need 2.4 micrograms a day from food or supplements.
Animal products, such as meat, eggs and seafood are rich sources of this nutrient. If you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet or have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from food, you may become deficient. But, deficiency develops slowly and appears over time. Symptoms may include strange sensations, including numbness and tingling pain in your feet and legs, as well as your hands. You may also have trouble walking due to an impaired balance.
If these strange leg symptoms are also accompanied by cognitive difficulties, weakness and fatigue, consider asking your doctor for a blood test to check your vitamin B12 status.
Folate Deficiency as a Cause
Folate deficiency is listed as a potential reason for restless leg syndrome by StatPearls. Folate, or folic acid, is a B-vitamin instrumental in helping your body create red blood cells. Without adequate red blood cells, anemia can result.
Certain medications, pregnancy, alcoholism and a poorly balanced diet can lead to folate deficiency, explains Johns Hopkins Medicine. Other symptoms of folate deficiency include pale skin, poor appetite, irritability, lack of energy, diarrhea and a smooth, tender tongue. Blood tests confirm a diagnosis and your doctor can recommend high-powered supplements to correct your insufficiency.
Read more: Fruits and Vegetables Containing Folic Acid
Other nutrients may also cause leg pain, but research isn't conclusive reports research in BMJ Clinical Evidence published in 2015. Vitamin B6 and vitamin E deficiencies may be a cause; or, at least some preliminary studies show supplements of these vitamins can reduce leg cramps.
Is This an Emergency?
- StatPearls:"Restless Leg Syndrome"
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "The Association Between Vitamin D Level and Restless Legs Syndrome: A Population-Based Case-Control Study"
- Sleep Medicine: "Restless Legs Syndrome in Pregnancy Is Connected With Iron Deficiency"
- Medical Principles and Practice: "Are Growing Pains Related to Vitamin D Deficiency? Efficacy of Vitamin D Therapy for Resolution of Symptoms"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Folate-Deficiency Anemia"
- Nutrients: "Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy"
- BMJ Clinical Evidence: "Leg Cramps"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Vitamin B12 Deficiency Can Be Sneaky, Harmful"
- Movement Disorders Clinical Practice: "Iron in Restless Legs Syndrome"
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: "Iron for the Treatment of Restless Legs Syndrome"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin D"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Magnesium"