What is leg problems and injuries?

Leg Problems and Injuries
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Leg problems, noninjury: Overview

Minor leg problems, such as sore muscles, are common. Leg problems often occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, and work or projects around the home. They also can be caused by injuries.

Leg problems may be minor or serious. They may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, cramps, numbness, tingling, weakness, or changes in temperature or color. Symptoms often develop from exercise, everyday wear and tear, or overuse.

Older adults have a higher risk for leg problems. That's because they lose muscle mass as they age. Children may have leg problems for the same reasons as adults or for reasons specific to children. Problems are often caused by being too active or by the rapid growth of bone and muscle that occurs in children.

It may help you better understand leg problems if you know what the bones of the thigh and lower leg look like, as well as the muscles and tendons. Leg problems that aren't related to a specific injury have many causes.

  • Problems can occur when you "overdo" an activity, do the same activity over and over again, or increase your exercise. This may be called an overuse injury, even though you didn't have an actual injury. Examples include bursitis, tendinitis, shin splints, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and other muscle strains or tears. Muscle cramps can be caused by activity or dehydration, especially when you exercise in the heat.
  • Problems that affect the blood vessels (vascular disease) may include peripheral arterial disease, inflammation of a vein (phlebitis), or a blood clot (thrombophlebitis).
    • A blood clot near the surface of the skin may cause only minor problems. But a clot in a deep vein may be more serious. Recent surgery, especially on bones or the pelvic or urinary organs, increases the risk of blood clots, especially in deep leg veins. Prolonged bed rest and inactivity, including sitting or standing in one position for long periods of time, also may increase your risk for blood clots. So can not being able to move a limb for a long time, such as when using a cast or splint.
    • Problems affecting the arteries (peripheral arterial disease) can cause cramping pain. It occurs with predictable amounts of exercise, such as walking a short distance, but it improves with rest.
  • Other diseases, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke can cause numbness, tingling, or loss of function in one or both legs.

Some leg problems are seen only in children, such as swelling at the top of the shinbone (Osgood-Schlatter disease) and swelling and pain in the knee joint (juvenile idiopathic arthritis). Growing pains are common among fast-growing children and teens. Doctors don't know why children have growing pains. These pains often last for 1 or 2 hours at a time and can wake a child from sleep.

Swollen feet are common after you've been sitting or standing for long periods of time or during hot or humid weather. Sitting or lying down and propping up your legs will often relieve this type of swelling. Conditions that put increased pressure on the belly and pelvis, such as obesity and pregnancy, also can cause swelling in the feet and ankles and varicose veins.

  • Varicose veins can affect both men and women. They may cause a problem in only one leg.
  • The swelling in the feet and ankles that occurs during pregnancy usually gets worse toward the end of the pregnancy and goes away after the baby is born.

Many medicines can cause problems in the legs. For example, birth control pills and other hormones can increase your risk of blood clots. And water pills (diuretics), heart medicines, and cholesterol-lowering medicines (statins) can cause muscle cramps.

Some leg problems only occur at night.

  • Restless legs syndrome causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move the legs. This can interrupt sleep and make you overly tired during the day. You may have a "pins-and-needles," prickling, creeping, crawling, tingling, and sometimes painful feeling in your legs. Moving your legs can give you short-term relief.
  • Nighttime leg cramps are a sudden tightening (contraction) of the leg muscles in the calf, thigh, or foot. They often occur just as you fall asleep or wake up. They can be painful. These cramps can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Walking or stretching your leg can sometimes help relieve these cramps.

Most minor leg problems will heal on their own. Home treatment may be all that's needed. But serious leg problems also may occur. They need to be checked by a doctor soon.

Caring for a minor leg problem

Try the following tips to help relieve minor leg pain, swelling, stiffness, or muscle cramps.

  • Remove all jewelry.

    Remove rings, anklets, and any other jewelry that goes around a lower extremity. It will be hard to remove the jewelry after swelling starts.

  • Rest.

    It's important to rest and protect the affected area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.

  • Use ice.

    Put ice or a cold pack on your leg for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake).

  • Wrap the affected area.

    Compression, or wrapping the area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help reduce swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, because that can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, and swelling in the area below the bandage.

  • Elevate the affected area.

    Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help reduce swelling. Prop up the area on pillows while you apply ice and anytime you sit or lie down.

  • Reduce stress on your leg.
    • Use a cane or crutch in the hand opposite your painful leg.
    • Use two crutches, keeping weight off the leg. You can get canes or crutches from most drugstores. Crutches are recommended if a cane causes you to walk with a limp.
  • Avoid more swelling.

    For 48 hours, avoid things that might increase swelling. These things include hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, and drinks that contain alcohol.

  • Apply heat.
    • After 2 or 3 days, you can try applying heat to the area that hurts. Types of heat therapy include microwavable packs and disposable heating patches.
    • Apply heat for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.
    • You might also try switching between cold and heat.
  • Rub the area.

    Gently rub sore or pulled muscles to relieve pain. But don't rub or massage a calf that is swollen.

  • Stand and move your legs.

    Gentle motion may help with cramps that are brought on by exercise.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

    Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, will often help leg cramps.

  • Treat your child's growing pains.

    If you think that your child is having growing pains, try warmth and massage to relieve discomfort in the legs. Don't rub or massage a calf that is swollen.

  • Treat leg cramps.
    • Try wearing support stockings during the day. And take frequent rest periods (with your feet up).
    • If leg cramps occur during pregnancy, make sure to eat a diet rich in calcium and magnesium. Talk with your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. The doctor may recommend one that doesn't contain phosphorus.
  • Don't smoke or use other tobacco products.

    Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair.

If you need to use a wrap, cane, or crutches for more than 48 hours, you may have a more serious injury that needs to be checked by a doctor.

Who is at risk for a toe, foot, or ankle infection?

People who have diabetes, peripheral arterial disease, or a weak immune system are more likely than others to get a toe, foot, or ankle infection. They are also more likely to have other problems from an infection. This includes inflammation of the entire body (sepsis), which can cause death.

What causes inflammation of a toe, foot, or ankle?

Inflammation may occur:

  • From overuse or minor injuries. For example, there may be inflammation with conditions such as gout, bursitis, or tendinitis.
  • As part of a disease process. For example, gout may cause pain, swelling, redness, and warmth that occurs all of a sudden in a big toe joint. Autoimmune diseases often lead to inflammation. These diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.

Inflammation may also be caused by an infection. Infections can occur without a known injury to the affected area. Signs of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, redness, or warmth around the affected area.
  • Red streaks extending from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • Fever.

It may be hard to tell if inflammation is caused by an infection or by something else. Be sure to assess all of your symptoms.

What is inflammation of a toe, foot, or ankle?

Inflammation is the response of the immune system to injury or infection. It may result in pain, swelling, redness, warmth, or loss of function in the affected body part. Inflammation may affect joints, such as the ankles. Or it may affect extremities, such as the feet or toes.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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