How To Deal With Muscle Aches in Your Legs
Leg pain can be disabling, and frequently it is hard to tell exactly what is causing it. While injuries are a common cause of leg pain, in many cases, people have pain and cannot attribute it to an injury.
Potential causes of leg pain include:
- Exercise-induced soreness: Starting a new activity or increasing exercise intensity can cause microscopic muscle tears, which cause muscle soreness. Preventing and relieving sore muscles is possible with a good training program.
- Injuries: Injuries are common causes of muscle soreness. Resting, icing, compressing, and elevating the injured leg can help it heal more quickly.
- Aging: Joint damage over time, muscle imbalances, and balance problems increase your risk of falls and injuries. Age management techniques to maintain muscle strength and tone can help reduce this risk.
- Weight gain: Changes in body composition put added stress on joints, increasing your risk for arthritis.
- Osteoarthritis: Common in older adults and exacerbated by weight gain, osteoarthritis is an inflammation of the joints.
- Electrolyte abnormalities: Dehydration or low potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium levels can cause muscle cramping and pain.
- Shin splints: Overuse injuries or excessive force applied to the lower leg can cause small tears in the tissue that connect muscle tissue to the shin. This type of injury typically causes pain and swelling along the shin bone.
- Tendonitis: An inflammation of the tendons, which are thick cords of tissue that connect muscles to bone, can cause leg pain that worsens with movement.
- Stress fractures: These microscopic fractures are typically overuse injuries due to repetitive stresses on the shin bone.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): DVTs are blood clots that develop in veins. They are serious causes of leg pain that need to be evaluated immediately.
- Peripheral artery disease: This condition is caused by a blockage in an artery that causes decreased blood flow to body tissues. A buildup of fat and cholesterol on the inner lining of blood vessels can contribute to peripheral artery disease.
- Sciatica: Pain that originates in the lower back and travels down the leg may be due to sciatic nerve inflammation, a condition called sciatica.
- Bone cancers: Prostate cancer and breast cancer may metastasize to the bone. Bone cancer can also develop in bony tissue.
- Bone infection: Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. If you have an open injury or a serious infection that may have traveled to the bone, immediate treatment is necessary.
Table of Contents
Depending on the cause of your leg pain, some of the following options may help reduce or prevent leg pain.
Resting an injured leg gives your body time to heal damaged tissues. It reduces stress and strain on your injured leg, which can help alleviate pain and discomfort. It reduces metabolic demand from the tissue and can prevent further injury. Resting gives your body time to rebuild damaged tissue and strengthen it. On your rest day, try doing light cardio or stretching to increase blood flow without straining the injured tissue.
Ice reduces swelling and pain by decreasing metabolic demand and blood flow to an injury. Cold therapy can slow nerve impulses transmitting pain signals to the brain. Icing guidelines depend on the type and severity of your injury. Typically, it is best to apply ice immediately. Apply it for 5 to 10 minutes at a time for the first 48 hours. Do not apply ice directly to your skin.
Applying ice to treat injuries is controversial because icing constricts blood vessels and decreases blood flow to the injury.1,2 Apply ice to reduce pain, but stop using it as soon as possible.
When you have an injury, elevating the affected limb decreases swelling and pain. For best results, elevate your limb so that it is higher than your heart for the first 48 hours or so after an injury. In a review of studies, researchers found no evidence that elevation improves pain or healing.3
Up to 60% of your body weight is water. Water is essential to carry nutrients to your muscle cells, flush out waste and provide an optimal environment for cellular metabolism. Let thirst be your guide, but if you notice signs of dehydration such as darker urine, dry mouth and tongue, dizziness, and muscle cramps, increase your water consumption to see if it reduces muscle soreness and cramping.
Healing your body takes time but providing it with nutrient-dense whole foods can help. These foods are high in vitamins and minerals. Consuming foods high in potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium can help reduce your risk of muscle cramps.
Inflammation is a normal immune response to infection or injury. Signs of inflammation include redness, swelling, warmth, and pain. Supplementing your diet with vitamins C and D and increasing your consumption of antioxidants such as resveratrol, quercetin, glutathione, and green tea extract can help your body control inflammation.
The risks and benefits of stretching are controversial regarding reducing muscle pain and cramping, but it is very beneficial for relieving pain and stiffness and improving flexibility. Stretching muscle and connective tissue before and after exercise can also reduce injury risk.
Both static and dynamic stretching can increase range of motion. Dynamic stretching can help prepare your muscle for physical activity.4
Yoga is a type of exercise that improves flexibility and can reduce your risk of injury, especially with aging. It can improve proprioception and posture and reduce back pain.
Regular exercise reduces your risk of injuries. Warm up before each exercise session. People who exercise without warming up are more likely to experience muscle cramping and pain after exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines jointly recommend the following:
- Exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for a total of 150 minutes of exercise per week.
- Exercise at a vigorous intensity for a minimum of 20 minutes, three days per week, for a total of 60 to 75 minutes per week.
- Do a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity walking.
Take Warm Baths
Warming muscle tissue increases blood flow to the tissue and may reduce pain. Increased blood flow carries nutrients to the injured tissue and washes away waste products. However, there is limited research on the benefits of ice or heat therapy for treating injuries.5
Assess the Potential Side Effects of Your Medications
Certain medications can cause leg pain as a side effect. Some examples include fluoroquinolones, statins, and losartan. Fluoroquinolone and Losartan use is associated with muscle and joint aches. Statins can cause muscle aches and rarely cause rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition that causes severe muscle aches.
Ask Your Doctor About Helpful Medications
If your leg pain is due to gout or arthritis, there are medications to reduce inflammation and pain. Prescription medications can relieve muscle spasms, cramping, and inflammation.
Use Compression Wraps and Clothing
Compression decreases swelling and pain. It is worth trying compression to see if it relieves your pain. Stop using compression if it does not or worsens the pain. In a review of studies, researchers found limited evidence refuting the use of compression to treat injuries.3
Some causes of leg pain, such as tumors, open fractures, bone infections, and blood clots, may require surgical intervention. These are serious causes of leg pain that should be evaluated and treated on an emergent basis.
Many of these interventions to reduce leg pain will help in some cases and do little or hurt in others, depending on the injury type and timing. Listen to your body and call your doctor if leg pain persists, or you are concerned that it may have a more serious cause.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
- Hubbard TJ, Denegar CR. Does cryotherapy improve outcomes with soft tissue injury?. J Athl Train. 2004;39(3):278-279.
- Howatson G, Van Someren KA. Ice massage. Effects on exercise-induced muscle damage. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003 Dec;43(4):500-5. PMID: 14767412.
- Borra V, De Buck E, Vandekerckhove P. RICE or ice: what does the evidence say? The evidence base for first aid treatment of sprains and strains. In: Filtering the information overload for better decisions. Abstracts of the 23rd Cochrane Colloquium; 2015 3-7 Oct; Vienna, Austria. John Wiley & Sons; 2015.
- Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb;7(1):109-19. PMID: 22319684; PMCID: PMC3273886.
- Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. Postgrad Med. 2015;127(1):57-65. doi:10.1080/00325481.2015.992719