7 Types of Leg Pain (and When to Take Them Seriously)

That leg pain may indicate you just need rest—or a life-threatening condition. Learn more about these common leg pain causes and how to treat them.

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Is your leg pain serious?

"The key [with leg pain] is the context," said Casey Humbyrd, MD, chief of the foot and ankle division, orthopedics, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. "If someone just got off a plane and says 'My leg hurts,' go to the hospital. We truly see a spike in deep vein thrombosis during holiday travel season. Of course, many other kinds of leg pain are just signs of overuse and respond to ice and anti-inflammatory [pain medications]." Only physicians can truly diagnose leg pain causes, though, so if home treatment doesn't ease discomfort fairly quickly, seek medical advice. Consider these clues to understand what your leg pain is telling you.

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Shin splints

If you have pain in the front of the leg or knee, this is often a sign of shin splints and is almost always related to overuse. That is especially true when people begin or rapidly increase exercise or activity. "You often hear people say 'I just started walking [or running] and started out at about three miles a day,'" says Dr. Humbyrd. "Their bodies aren't ready for that increase in activity. "Rest your legs, use ice to reduce swelling, and take anti-inflammatory painkillers, she advises. Ensure splints don't become stress fractures by maintaining appropriate vitamin D levels, says Dr. Humbyrd. Ask your physician to test your vitamin D levels and discuss how to best increase them if they are at low levels.

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Leg cramps

Spasms or cramps in the leg muscles that don't relax for at least several seconds may be caused by overuse or dehydration, says John-Paul Rue, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Sometimes even just walking much longer than usual may trigger leg cramps. Routine muscle cramps generally last just a few seconds or minutes and ease with warmth, rest and stretching, he says. But, he says, it's important to distinguish between those and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). "The DVT usually presents with more deep-seated constant pain and swelling," he says. If you suspect you have any symptoms of DVT, seek immediate medical attention. If restless leg syndrome is the cause of your leg cramps, learn some home remedies that could give you relief.