The tingle of your pre-workout kicking in is one thing, but feeling a tingling in your legs after a workout is another. It might seem concerning, but it's not always a cause for alarm.
As blood flow increases
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In addition, new workout shoes can case your legs to tingle, especially if you've tied them too tightly (or possibly even if they're too loose), says Steven E. Mayer, MD, sports medicine physician at the Northwestern Medicine Running Medicine Clinic. Same goes for workout clothes if they fit too snuggly and impede your circulation.
These common causes of tingling in the calves after exercise aren't the only things that might cause the sensation, however.
"There are many causes of tingling in the leg, but the most important thing to do first is to make sure the description is accurate," says Merije T. Chukumerije, MD, a cardiologist with Cedars-Sinai Medical Network.
"Is it tingling, itching, pain, etc.? The description is key in determining the cause," he says. Plus, it's important to know when the feeling might be more serious and require a trip to the doctor.
If your legs tingle after exercising, the sensation can be caused by a number of factors, such as increased blood flow, impingement of a nerve or a muscle spasm. It's usually no cause for concern — as long as it goes away with rest.
8 Possible Causes of Leg Tingling After Exercise
1. A Histamine Response
If you feel tingling and itching in your feet after exercise, perhaps traveling to your butt and lower abdomen, it could be a histamine response. Yes, it might feel like you're "allergic to exercise," but don't retire your running shoes just yet.
"The body releases histamine as a means to improve circulation during exercise," Dr. Chukumerije says. "This histamine release results in the same sensation one feels during an allergic reaction, causing an itching sensation in the locations of maximum histamine release during exercise, the muscles."
Histamine plays an important role in helping your muscles combat fatigue through regulating
Histamine pouring into your H1 (histamine) receptors can actually be a good thing for the body — so most people won't need to pop an allergy pill before exercise. The substance helps your skeletal muscles produce nitric oxide, a beneficial chemical stored in the muscles that decreases with age, per January 2018 research from Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.
Nitric oxide positively affects the health of mitochondria — the powerhouses of the body's cells — helping them be more efficient at converting food to energy and clearing away old or broken cells.
Be aware that in rare instances, an extreme allergic reaction to exercise could cause anaphylaxis, so it's best to be safe and talk to your doctor if you're experiencing chronic tingling in your legs after exercise.
2. Circulation Issues
During an intense workout, much of your blood is directed to your working muscles, and your blood vessels expand to accommodate the increased flow. However, as mentioned above, tight shoes or clothing can restrict your blood flow and lead to a tingling sensation.
Another potential, more serious cause of impaired circulation is peripheral artery disease (PAD) — a narrowing of the blood vessels.
"If the tingling or discomfort is due to poor circulation (peripheral artery disease), this is explained by plaque buildup (atherosclerosis) in the arteries obstructing blood flow to the muscles, limiting the amount of nutrients and oxygen the muscles receive," Dr. Chukumerije says.
This reduced blood flow can lead to ischemia, and symptoms include pain and tingling in the extremities, which can radiate up one or both legs. PAD may also cause your legs to ache and/or feel crampy. If you experience these symptoms, see your doctor for a full diagnosis.
3. Low Electrolytes
Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium help regulate your nerve and muscle function, your hydration levels and repair damaged tissue.
"Exercise causes changes in your body's fluid balance to shift, this can lead to electrolyte imbalances and/or dehydration, which can affect how the muscles contract and relax," Dr. Chukumerije says. This is particularly the case if your levels of sodium, calcium and potassium fall, because your muscles need those electrolytes to contract, according to Medical News Today.
To keep your electrolyte levels balanced during and after a workout, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. During longer or heated workouts, sports drinks containing calcium and potassium can also help.
4. A Pinched Nerve
"For some, poor functioning nerves can cause tingling after exercise," Dr. Chukumerije says. "This is due to dysfunctional peripheral nerves which may send erroneous messages to your brain."
When the sensation of nerve pain in the legs after exercise runs down both sides, chances are the problem is in your lower back.
Spinal stenosis is a compression of the spinal cord in the lower back, and can be an indicator of arthritis, injury or aging. Tingling or numbness is often accompanied by pain traveling down both legs that's worse when standing up and eases up when you're seated or bending forward. You might also have trouble with your balance or changes in bowel or bladder control.
Another potential cause is neuropathy, a nerve impingement that can be caused by structural issues or diabetes. "The most common thing we see after exercise from the standpoint is called tarsal tunnel syndrome where there is impingement at the ankle of a nerve that goes into the foot," Dr. Mayer says.
Narrowing of the blood vessels or arteries or other systemic disease could also be the reason. Take a break from your workout routine and get a thorough medical evaluation should your tingly legs give you cause for concern.
It's also important that you speak to your doctor if you fall during a workout and subsequently experience chronic tingling. They can help determine what's causing the tingling and whether it's coming from a pinched nerve. Your doctor can prescribe or recommend certain therapies, such as chiropractic care, to help treat any tingling sensations.
5. Back Issues
If tingling isn't normally part of your exercise experience and you haven't added any new constrictive clothing to your wardrobe, a sudden onset of leg tingling after working out could indicate injury.
Injury to your lower spine's sacroiliac (SI) joint — such as when you take a misstep on the gym equipment or step unexpectedly onto an uneven surface when jogging — can cause tingling down the leg on one side of the body. Some people are particularly susceptible to SI injury when they experience hormonal changes due to menstrual periods or pregnancy that cause ligaments to soften, causing
A herniated disc can also cause tingling, burning and pain down one leg and is common in those who are aging or have arthritis of the spine.
"If the pain is coming from the lumbar area — like a sciatic nerve problem — we would initiate physical therapy, which is almost always helpful and resolves the problem," Dr. Mayer says.
But for either issue (or another type of back injury), see your doctor for an evaluation instead of powering through the pain. Failing to treat an injury appropriately can result in further injury and being sidelined for months.
6. A Neuroma
A neuroma occurs when a nerve bundle in your foot — usually between your third and fourth toes — becomes inflamed.
"The other most common thing we see that can give tingling into the foot during workouts is Morton's neuroma, which is impingement of the nerve between the toes," Dr. Mayer says.
It's common in runners with hyper-mobile feet and is characterized by tingling pains that shoot up your leg, as well as numbness and a burning feeling in your foot, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association.
Symptoms may come and go and should be treated with ice to reduce inflammation. Apply ice to the feet for 10 to 15 minutes ever hour for five to six hours. You can also use athletic shoe inserts designed for neuroma relief, which help reduce irritation during runs by stabilizing the metatarsals.
You can also manage your symptoms by applying padding directly to the affected area. To make sure you find the exact position, bend your toes back or press the sole of your foot until you find the most painful spot. If this doesn't help, see a podiatrist.
7. Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome
A tingling sensation in your legs could be due to chronic exertional compartment syndrome, a fairly rare neuromuscular disorder that's most likely to occur in people who engage in repetitive activities like running.
"Exertional compartment syndrome is where the fascia layering the muscles causes tightness and can cause pain in the muscles as well as numbness into the leg or foot," Dr. Mayer says. The tingling usually affects the lower legs (sometimes arms), and other symptoms can include pain, tightness and swelling in the affected limb.
The condition is likely to arise soon after you start exercising and get progressively worse during your session. At first, the symptoms will disappear shortly after you stop exercising. However, if the condition worsens, the symptoms may linger for several days. If this is the case, stop exercising and see a doctor.
8. Entrapment Syndrome
Entrapment syndrome is another rare but relatively serious condition that can cause tingling in the legs. The tingling sensation comes from trapped blood in the popliteal artery, which is situated behind the knee. If the artery becomes pinched, the amount of blood delivered to the lower leg is reduced, which results in a tingling sensation.
Repetitive bending of the leg while running can cause the artery to become pinched in the gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. Usually, the artery is relieved from the compression after you stop running, but in some cases, surgery is required to free the artery again so that it can properly deliver blood again.
How to Address Chronic Tingling After Exercise
"Most of the time, tingling in the legs after exercise is benign and will resolve after a few minutes of rest," Dr. Chukumerije says. "The most common cause of tingling in the legs are muscles that are depleted of nutrients due to dehydration and/or electrolyte imbalances."
If the tingling is minor and doesn't bother you, it's just fine to go about your day. As the blood is no longer needed for strenuous exercise, some of the blood flow will leave your muscles and the tingly feeling will stop.
The National Institute for Fitness and Sport recommends a multi-pronged recovery program after exercise. First, rest, hydrate and fuel your body with healthy food options to help it repair. Massages, alternating hot and cold showers or icing muscles can also reduce the muscle swelling that can make your legs feel tingly.
If your tingling doesn't go away after a reasonable amount of time — say, an hour or so after you stop exercising — it's important to chronicle it in your workout journal. Note when you first noticed the tingling: Does it appear after you've been working out for several minutes or only after stopping?
Jot down exactly where you're feeling the sensation. For example, new running shoes can rub nerves on the top of your foot that make your legs tingle after walking if they're laced too tightly. Tingling in muscles after exercise that runs down the back of your thigh could indicate problems in your lower back.
Your notes will come in handy, particularly if your tingling appears only intermittently. Are you wearing a particular item of clothing that could be cutting off blood flow or impinging a nerve? Is there any pain that appears in your body at the same time, whether you think it's related or not?
Careful note-taking can help you communicate with your doctor and obtain an accurate diagnosis should the sensation become a regular part of your exercise routine.
"Early identification and treatment can help save limbs and lives," Dr. Chukumerije says.
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- Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: "The Intriguing Role of Histamine in Exercise Responses"
- Medical News Today: "What Are Mitochondria?"
- Progress in Brain Research: "Chapter 11 - Exercise and cerebrovascular plasticity"
- American Heart Association: "About Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)"
- American Heart Association: "Silent Ischemia and Ischemic Heart Disease"
- Medical News Today: "Electrolyte imbalance: The symptoms, how to manage it, and more"
- Mayo Clinic: "Spinal Stenosis"
- National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet"
- Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery: "Leg symptoms associated with sacroiliac joint disorder and related pain"
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Herniated Disc"
- American Podiatric Medical Association: "Neuromas"
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- Cleveland Clinic: "Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome (PAES)"
- National Institute for Fitness and Sport: "The Importance of Recovery After Exercise"