If you experience leg pain, the cause may at first be unclear. Typically, people assume pain is related to injury, even when they cannot point to a specific incident such as a fall or an accident. Several diseases and conditions can cause leg pain, including arthritis. It's important to be diagnosed by a doctor, especially when leg pain persists or worsens. Appropriate treatment depends on an accurate diagnosis.
Leg Pain Explained
Generally, leg pain refers to any pain that develops between your feet and your pelvis. To make matters even more complicated, the cause of leg pain may not even be due to a problem with your leg. For example, some spine disorders can cause leg pain.
Leg pain may be acute or chronic, and onset may be sudden or gradual. The pain may be constant or intermittent. Leg pain may also be sharp, dull, achy, stabbing, or tingling. How you describe the pain may help your doctor determine the cause, as can the specific location of the pain (i.e., foot pain, ankle pain, knee pain, hip pain, muscle pain, calf pain, or thigh pain).
Causes of Leg Pain
People with arthritis are often encouraged to exercise. Many choose walking as their primary form of exercise because it is enjoyable and doable for most. Walking may provoke existing leg pain, though. If you experience leg pain while walking, it is easy to blame your arthritis, but quite possibly something else is causing the pain. It's important to pay attention to signs that may point to the source of the pain. Does it seem muscular? Does the pain seem to originate from one or more joints? Is the cause less obvious, and does it require evaluation and diagnostic testing, such as X-rays or other imaging studies? Let's consider some of the possible causes of leg pain.
Arthritis pain - Joint pain from arthritis is primarily associated with inflammation. Leg pain related to various types of arthritis (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, infectious arthritis, gout, bursitis, and tendonitis) may affect one or more joints or other parts of the musculoskeletal system.
Muscle pain - Leg pain that involves muscle cramps may be due to dehydration or low levels of potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium in your blood. Certain medications, such as diuretics and statins, can affect the muscles and cause pain. Also, muscles may become strained or fatigued because of excessive activity.
Strains and sprains - Injuries to muscles and tendons are commonly referred to as strains. Injuries to ligaments are called sprains. Typically, a strain occurs when you pull or tear a muscle. Pain associated with a strain is acute and can be intense, especially with movement.
Fractures - A fracture refers to a break in a bone. Pain associated with a fracture actually occurs when nerve endings in the tissue that surround the bone send pain signals to the brain. A hairline crack in the bone is referred to as a stress fracture, a condition that is not uncommon in people with arthritis.
Shin splints - Shin splints refer to pain along the tibia (shinbone) or just behind it. Typically, shin splints develop from overuse or excessive force applied to the shinbone and the tissue that connects muscle to bone. Along with pain, tenderness and mild swelling are common characteristics of shin splints.
Compartment syndrome - Anatomically-speaking, compartments are groupings of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in your arms and legs. Compartment syndrome develops when swelling or bleeding occurs within a compartment. Most often, compartment syndrome occurs in the anterior compartment of the lower leg, but it can also occur in other compartments of the leg. It can be quite painful, and disrupted blood flow can result in the death of cells and tissue if not resolved.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - A blood clot that develops in certain veins of the lower leg or thigh is referred to as deep vein thrombosis. The painful condition can develop after long periods of inactivity. It is more common in people who are overweight, smoke, or take certain medications that increase the risk for blood clots.
Sciatica - Sciatica is a condition caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. With sciatica, pain can radiate from the back and down the leg. Sciatica can be caused by a herniated disc or by spinal stenosis.
Peripheral neuropathy - Peripheral neuropathy is defined as a problem with nerve function outside the spine, such as in the feet and legs. Burning pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness are characteristic of peripheral neuropathy.
Bone cancer - Bone cancer of the leg (e.g., osteosarcoma) can be a source of leg pain. Certain other cancers, such as prostate cancer and breast cancer, can metastasize to bone and cause leg pain as well.
Osteomyelitis - Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. It can be caused by an open injury to the bone or an infection from elsewhere in the body that has spread to the bone.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) - Peripheral artery disease refers to blockage in the large arteries of the limbs. People with arthritis who are experiencing leg pain due to peripheral artery disease often don't distinguish between the two conditions. Pain caused by peripheral artery disease involves restricted blood flow in the vessels which causes not only pain, but cramping, numbness, and weakness in the muscles. It's important to consult your doctor when you have symptoms of peripheral artery disease. A test, known as an ABI test (ankle-brachial test), can compare the blood pressure in your feet to the blood pressure taken at your arm to check blood flow.
The Bottom Line
If you have been diagnosed with arthritis, you may be inclined to think that all incidences of leg pain are related to your arthritic condition. Overlooking the possibility of other causes can have serious consequences. If the location, severity, or usual characteristics of your leg pain change, be sure to consult with your doctor.
Leg Pain. University of Maryland Medical Center. 8/8/2009.
Ankle-Brachial Index. Heart and Vascular Center. The Ohio State University. Accessed 05/19/13.
Osteomyelitis. Cleveland Clinic. 01/12/2009.