Sciatica occurs due to compression of the sciatic nerve that runs from your lower back to your calves. This painful symptom commonly results from a tear in the outer covering of a disk in your back and the subsequent leakage of its contents, which puts pressure on the nerve's root. Sciatica can produce a dull ache in your lower back, hip, buttocks, thighs, calves, ankles, feet or toes, as well as a shooting pain that runs from your lower back down your leg. This nerve pain ranges from mild to severe and may occur after periods of prolonged sitting, physical exertion or when flexing your back. Moreover, the affected area may be sensitive and sore to the touch. Contact your doctor if you experience extreme or progressive pain that lasts longer than a week or if your pain occurs in conjunction with numbness or muscle weakness in your legs.
Muscle cramps are forcible, involuntary contractions of your muscles that can produce minor to severe pain that can last 15 minutes or longer. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, muscle cramps most commonly occur in the gastrocnemius muscles in the back of your calves, in the hamstrings on the back of your thighs, and in the quadriceps muscles on the front of your thighs. However, cramps can also occur in your hands, feet and other parts of your body. During a cramp, you may feel a hard, painful lump of muscle tissue. Spasms can appear while you complete exercises, such as knee-to-chest bends, as well as while you sit, walk and sleep. An increased risk of muscle cramps occurs in well-trained athletes, along with infants, young children, older adults and overweight individuals. If you experience frequent, severe pain that isn't related to an obvious cause, such as exercise, consult your doctor.
Your hamstrings -- muscles that run from your pelvis, through your knees and stop at the top of your calves –- help you bend your knees. The pulling, straining or tearing of these muscles may also cause pain in your calves and thighs. Hamstring injuries often result from overuse or overstretching through participating in activities, such as soccer, football, basketball, sprinting and running. A hamstring injury can result in sudden, sharp pain in the back of your thigh followed by swelling and tenderness. You may also experience a sense of popping or tearing. A direct hit on your muscles as they contract can result in a hamstring tear. A severe tear may produce a knot of tissue on your thigh and pain when you bend your knee or touch the affected area. Minor pain can gradually progress each time you repeat the activity that initially caused the injury. Depending on the severity of your injury, a full recovery may take up to three months.
Treatment and Prevention
Whether the pain in your legs results from sciatica, painful muscles or from other reasons, several at-home remedies may help reduce your discomfort and prevent further injuries. For instance, applying an ice pack up to 20 minutes several times per day may reduce inflammation. You can also apply a hot pack or alternate hot and cold treatments. In addition, over-the-counter medications, gentle stretching and massages might relieve pain in your calves and thighs.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends completing regular flexibility exercises before and after you exercise. Exercises that stretch the muscles in your calves and thighs can promote more efficient muscle contractions and lessen your chances of muscle injury or cramping. One calf-muscle stretch involves leaning forward with your hands against a wall, one leg in front of the other and your heels flat. In addition, riding a stationary bicycle before bed can also help reduce muscle and nerve pain. Consult your doctor before attempting to treat your painful legs at home.