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When is it Time to See a Doctor About Leg Pain?

Published on 23rd April 2020
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When is it Time to See a Doctor About Leg Pain?
  1. Causes of Leg Pain
  2. Symptoms Determine Next Steps
  3. Time to See a Doctor?
  4. What Type of Doctor Should I see for Leg Pain?

Leg pain can feel like a dull ache, due to activities like standing too long or overexertion during exercise or repetitive sports. There are times though when leg pain indicates a much more serious problem, like a lower spine medical condition or blood clots related to heart disease. It is important to know when the symptoms indicate it is time to see a doctor.

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Causes of Leg Pain

Most of the time, leg pain is uncomfortable but minor. Sometimes, the pain is intense and interferes with an individual’s ability to walk, sleep, work and perform other activities.

The leg is a complex structure of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints. Any of these tissues can be injured or develop medical problems. In fact, leg pain can be caused by conditions that are:

  • Musculoskeletal
  • Vascular
  • Neurological

The complication is that leg pain may not be originating in the leg. For example, it might be pain radiating down nerves due to sciatica. The large sciatic nerve splits in the lower back and runs down each leg. When pressure is placed on the nerve for any reason, the pain travels down the nerve path.

The common causes of leg pain include:

  • Injury to muscles, ligaments, tendons or cartilage
  • Broken bones, including stress fractures
  • Shin splints common from repetitive sports
  • Overuse of legs
  • Arthritis in the hip, knee or ankle joints
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD) in which fat and cholesterol-induced plaque narrow arteries and starve muscles of oxygen
  • Spinal stenosis in the lumbar spine in which one or more disks impinge on the spinal canal, nerve roots are placed under pressure and pain occurs in the leg
  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Nerve damage
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Medications

There are so many more, including bursitis, gout, herniated spinal disk, muscle cramps and varicose veins, to name a few.

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Symptoms Determine Next Steps

People develop some medical conditions and diseases slowly, so do not connect leg pain to something more serious at first. Leg pain can be acute or become chronic. Acute pain is sudden, short-term pain which is the type experienced due to something like a strained muscle or tendon or sprained ligament. It is often not serious unless a bone is broken.

Common symptoms accompanying or causing leg pain include:

  • Muscle contractions with a tight lump of muscle
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Inflammation

The way leg pain is experienced varies. For example, morning leg pain in adults can indicate poor blood circulation. A dull pain in leg may be a symptom of problems in the lower spine, varicose veins or a minor injury.

Other common ways people experience leg pain include:

  • Knee pain radiating down leg – could be due to arthritis, sciatica, inflammation or a damaged nerve.
  • Leg pain when sitting – regularly sitting for long periods puts pressure on muscles and joints, interferes with blood circulation and can weaken muscles. If a pain is uncommon, it may indicate a problem with the hips or lower back, a hamstring injury or a deep vein thrombosis.
  • Knee pain down to ankle – could indicate arthritis in the knee, accompanied by inflammation-causing radiating pain. Other causes include bursitis, blood clots, poor blood circulation, PAD or knee joint injury.
  • Muscle cramps – involuntary contractions of the muscles are very painful and can occur day or night; they are usually due to long periods of muscle use in hot weather, medications, lack or excess of certain minerals like potassium and/or dehydration.
when is it time to see a doctor about leg pain muscle cramps
  • Pain in lower leg or thigh – pain in these areas would indicate deep vein thrombosis, overuse and a host of diseases

Heart disease and leg pain can be related. In fact, leg pain can be an early warning symptom of heart disease or peripheral arterial disease. Blockages in blood vessels due to scar tissue, cholesterol and blood clots interfere with blood flow. If someone experiences leg pain due to PAD, it is likely there is a high risk of a heart attack or stroke.

For people with high blood pressure, leg pain may occur. The reason again is due to constricted blood vessels. Arteries are damaged by untreated persistent high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and cholesterol build-up. Cholesterol build-up can lead to inflammation too, creating a double impact on the arteries in the lower extremities.

Time to See a Doctor?

Leg pain that is acute and due to a minor injury or overuse can be treated at home. Leg cramps, for example, usually last for a few minutes. Massaging and stretching the muscle can help loosen the tight muscle.

Dull pain in leg due to overuse will usually get better after a period of rest in which the legs are elevated.

A minor injury, like a leg muscle strain or ligament sprain, can be treated by applying ice to the area of pain and swelling. Elevate and rest the leg to allow healing, and try using a compression bandage.

The key to knowing when to see a doctor about leg pain is when the pain is:

  • Severe
  • Persistent
  • Due to a serious injury
  • Gets worse over time and never disappears
  • Interferes with life activities for more than a few days

See a doctor immediately if the following symptoms appear in the leg:

  • Swelling, especially in both legs
  • Unusually cool to the touch
  • Pale in color
  • Swelling in the leg accompanied by other symptoms, like breathing problems
  • Serious symptoms that develop suddenly and for no apparent reason
  • Obvious bone injury, i.e. broken, exposed or causes misshapen leg
  • Unable to put any pressure on the leg
  • Signs of infection, like warmth and redness
  • Calf pain that develops after sitting for a period of time

What Type of Doctor Should I see for Leg Pain?

If self-treatment does not improve the symptoms after a few days, then see a doctor. Since leg pain can be attributed to a wide range of causes, from minor injury to serious disease, a good place to start is by making an appointment with a general practitioner for unknown leg pain.

The family doctor is likely to refer you to a specialist, if there are any indications of disease or injury causing the leg pain. For example, if the doctor suspects the leg pain is due to a lower back problem, then you will want to see a spine specialist.

If the leg pain is likely due to PAD, then it is important to see a heart specialist.

There are no hard and fast rules because there are so many variations of leg pain. The best advice is to not hesitate to see a doctor if you want a diagnosis and help determining the best course of treatment.

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Call (703) 520-1031 today for a consultation with pain management specialist Dr. Majid Ghauri at Spine & Pain Clinic of North America (SAPNA) or use the form below to make an appointment.

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