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Leg Weakness: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Published on 8th July 2024
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Leg weakness is a condition that may have a benign cause, like over-exercising, or it may be a symptom of a disease or an underlying health issue.
Leg Weakness: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment
  1. What Are Weak Leg Symptoms?
  2. Causes of Leg Weakness
  3. Treatments for Leg Weakness
  4. When to Call 911
  5. Make an Appointment with a Doctor for Evaluation

Leg weakness is a condition that may have a benign cause, like over-exercising, or it may be a symptom of a disease or an underlying health issue. You may notice you are losing leg strength over time, or there might be a sudden weakness in the legs. There are numerous causes of people losing strength in their legs. Unless there is rapid recovery or no apparent reason for losing leg strength, it is important to see a doctor for testing and diagnosis.

What Are Weak Leg Symptoms?

It may seem evident at first glance that weak leg symptoms are mostly a feeling the leg is giving out while walking. However, it is not that simple. Many times, weak legs are accompanied by other symptoms besides sudden muscle weakness in the legs. Following is a list of some of the symptoms that are frequently experienced with general leg weakness.

  • Muscle pain in the legs
  • Reduced muscle strength in the legs
  • Stiffness in the leg muscles
  • Muscle spasms
  • Leg cramps
  • Lower back pain
  • Legs feel “heavy”
  • Leg numbness
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Knees buckle
  • Balance issues making walking unstable
  • Shakiness in the legs
  • Tingling feeling in the legs
  • Difficulty lifting the leg or foot
  • Paralysis
  • Difficulty standing

Leg weakness can occur in one or both legs. It can happen suddenly, randomly or become an ongoing issue.

Causes of Leg Weakness

There are numerous causes of leg weakness, ranging from over-exertion to serious medical conditions like a stroke or disease. If the leg weakness is due to a stroke, there are usually other symptoms like facial drooping, lack of mental awareness and slurred speech.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is called a mini-stroke and could be a forewarning of a stroke. The TIA happens quickly as a blood clot in the brain blocks blood flow and then rapidly dissolves. It can lead to paralysis on one side, slurred speech, numbness, weakness and paralysis. It is imperative to get medical assistance immediately because the earlier treatment is delivered, the more likely the person will recover.

Most cases of leg weakness are due to something other than a stroke or TIA, but you still need to see a doctor if any leg weakness develops suddenly or over time. Following are some of the common causes of leg weakness.

Causes of Leg Weakness

1. Stroke 

A stroke is a disease in which a blood vessel leading to the brain is blocked or ruptured. A stroke due to a blood clot is called an ischemic stroke. A stroke due to a blood vessel rupturing is called a hemorrhagic stroke. Strokes occur on the left side or right side of the brain or in the brain stem.

Leg weakness is a common symptom of a stroke. The location of the stroke in the brain determines which leg is affected. If the stroke occurs on the left side of the brain, the right leg may experience weakness. Conversely, if the stroke is on the right side, the left leg may be affected. In the case of a stroke in the brain stem, both legs may experience weakness.

2. Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

A TIA, also known as a mini-stroke, is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. Unlike a full stroke, the blockage is usually brief, and the symptoms typically disappear within 24 hours. However, a TIA is a warning sign that a full stroke may occur in the future. Symptoms can include weakness or numbness on one side of the body, including in a leg, and in some cases, paralysis.

3. Sciatica

When you have sciatica, there is compression of the sciatic nerve at some point. The sciatic nerve extends from the lower spine and separates to extend down each leg further. The nerve compression can lead to legs that are painful and weak.

4. Medications

Some medications can lead to losing strength in the legs due to muscle weakness. Corticosteroids and statins are known to have these side effects.

5. Spine conditions

Various medical issues can develop in the spine and lead to losing strength in the legs. They include a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, arthritis and degenerative disc disease. These medical conditions can lead to loss of leg strength, but other symptoms usually develop too. For example, you may develop back pain from nerve damage, pain that radiates to other body areas, numb legs, or a tingling feeling due to nerve issues.

6. Alcohol use disorder 

Excessive alcohol drinking, especially binge drinking, can lead to myopathy, which is skeletal muscle dysfunction. Muscle disease due to alcohol is five times more common than cirrhosis of the liver.

7. Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the peripheral nervous system experiences nerve damage. It can develop due to an infection, injury or a disease like diabetes. Diabetes can have neuropathy symptoms or no neuropathy. If it is symptomatic, the lower leg muscles are weak. Leg pain and weakness causing difficulty walking is one symptom. There may be shooting pain, numbness starting in the feet and hands or a freezing or burning feeling.

8. Neuromuscular diseases

Muscle weakness in the legs may indicate a neuromuscular disease is present. These diseases lead to a loss of functioning in nerves and muscles throughout the body. They include muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), myasthenia gravis and fibromyalgia. These diseases cause several symptoms, including losing strength in the legs, muscle twitching and muscle stiffness.

9. Toxins

Exposure to environmental toxins or cleaning and pest control products can lead to toxic neuropathy. Nerve pain is felt in the legs and feet or the arms and hands.

10. Injuries

An injury from a fall or vehicle accident can lead to losing strength in the legs. For example, a torn meniscus in the knee can impede knee functioning. Torn ligaments, broken knee bones, or trapped cartilage can cause your legs to give out due to knee trauma.

11. Arthritis

Arthritis can lead to knee joint disintegration. When the knee joint is unstable, it often leads to losing strength in the legs. The knee joint may be painful, but losing a stable knee structure can also lead to shooting pain in the legs and down to the feet. Recent research has found that some people are more likely to develop muscle weakness as they age due to biological factors.

12. Thyroid conditions

Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can cause muscle weakness or joint and muscle pain.

13. Infections 

Bacteria or viruses can cause severe damage if left untreated. The damage may be to the spinal cord, brain or nerves and cause leg weakness.

14. Neurodegenerative diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases are a group of conditions that primarily affect the neurons in the human brain. These diseases are typically progressive, so they get worse over time. They are characterized by a gradual loss of nerve cells, leading to a decline in the individual’s physical and mental abilities.

One common symptom of neurodegenerative diseases is leg weakness, which can lead to balance, stability and mobility issues. Examples of these diseases and disorders include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.

15. Autoimmune diseases

Some causes of leg weakness fall within two or more categories. For example, myasthenia gravis is a chronic autoimmune disorder and a neuromuscular disease.Other autoimmune diseases causing muscle weakness include myositis and rheumatoid arthritis. Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is another condition in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves. It is a rare neurological disorder in which foot weakness often develops first and moves up the legs and the rest of the body.

16. Insect bites

Though rare, sometimes leg weakness develops due to an insect bite. For example, acute compartment syndrome of the leg is a condition in which circulation is compromised due to increased pressure within a closed muscle space. It can progress to weakness, motor paralysis and other issues. While most acute compartment syndrome is due to events like fractures or crush injuries, there are cases in which insect bites cause it.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that develops after getting bit by a blacklegged tick (deer tick). Lyme disease can produce neurologic symptoms when the bacteria affect the central or peripheral nervous systems. When peripheral nerves are affected, weakness and numbness in the arms and legs may develop, among many other symptoms.

If the sudden leg weakness does not regularly happen and is likely associated with over-exertion or vigorous exercise, home treatments like applying hot or cold packs or taking an NSAID can help your body recover. One indication that it is not a serious problem is when you recover quickly.

Treatments for Leg Weakness

The best treatment, of course, depends on a doctor’s diagnosis. There are a host of treatment options.

  • Guided steroid injections into the spine or knee joints to reduce inflammation
  • Physical therapy
  • Medications like over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen for mild pain and prescription medications for diseases or other underlying causes
  • Back brace support until an injury heals
  • Exercises to strengthen lower back and leg muscles
  • Dietary changes
  • Surgery when conservative treatments do not help

A doctor will perform various medical tests to pinpoint the reason for the weak legs symptoms.

Physical therapy as a treatment for leg weakness

When to Call 911

Knowing when to call 911 ensures a person experiencing a serious medical condition, like a stroke, gets help as quickly as possible. Some situations involving leg weakness that indicate calling 911 is a good plan include the following.

  • Leg weakness is sudden, and there are other symptoms like loss of bladder or bowel control, sudden confusion or vision problems indicating a possible stroke
  • Leg weakness and tingling develop soon after an injury that did not seem serious, indicating there is more bone or tissue damage than realized
  • A person experiences an unexpected loss of balance and stability, often resulting in a fall
  • An individual suddenly has difficulty walking, which may be accompanied by slurred speech
  • There is sudden or developing leg numbness or weakness
  • Other symptoms like muscle pain, fever and shortness of breath accompany the leg weakness
  • There is a sudden feeling of intense leg pain, and the leg becomes weak

Make an Appointment with a Doctor for Evaluation

Sudden leg weakness is a symptom, and you want to know what is causing the symptom. Since so many causes are related to a spinal condition, you can make an appointment with a spine specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Diagnosis tests include a physical examination, blood tests, motor testing, neurologic exam, MRI, X-rays, myelogram and CAT scan.


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