Leg Pain

July 23, 2014

YOU WOKE UP with your lower calf killing you. Should you be concerned?
Depending on its quality and location, the leg pain you're experiencing could be as benign as exercise-related strain or as serious as a life-threatening blood clot. A better understanding of leg pain causes will allow you to accurately explain your pain to your doc­tor and get you the right care.


Sciatica is most often caused by a herni­ated disk or bone spur, which irritates the sci­atic nerve in your lower back. The pain follows a path, starting in your lower back, heading down your hips and buttocks, then finally radiating down one leg.

Sciatica pain is usually described as burning, shooting, stabbing, sharp pain. "The pain can be felt at rest and can be aggravated with prolonged sitting, standing or even coughing or sneezing. Sciatica is commonly associated with low back pain as well:'

You should seek immediate treatment if you develop weakness in your legs, or if you have sudden loss of bowel or bladder con­trol, which can mean all the nerves in your lower spine are compressed—damage that can lead to paralysis.

Cramps and Muscle Spasms

If you are sleeping or working out and suddenly experience an intense, cramping muscle spasm that takes a few minutes to pass, most likely you've had a charley horse, which can occur if you've exercised a bit too long or at too high an intensity. Exercise-related muscle spasms create a very sharp pain, causing your body part to fully tense up, to the point of not being able to move it. "Exercise-related spasms occur typically in the calf, the toes and the soles of the feet:'

If you experience a sudden sharp pain that does not let you complete an exercise, you should speak with your doctor, as it could mean you've injured your Achilles tendon or a joint or bone. A doctor visit is a good idea if your leg pain causes you to alter the way you walk.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Pain that flares when you're sitting or lying down, but gets better when you move, could be restless leg syndrome (RLS), a condi­tion that doctors suspect may be caused by an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine.

Researchers at the University of Montreal found that members of French Canadian families tend to be at higher risk for RLS. The condition might be hereditary, but there may be contributing factors such as anemia, iron deficiency and/or multiple pregnancies. However, the cause is unknown at this time.

The pain often is an achy soreness, and can be a creepy-crawly, tingling sensation. RLS pain can also be described as burning, itching, or gnawing in calves, thighs or feet.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Is one of your legs swollen, red and pain­ful, especially from the knee down? Go to the ER—deep vein thrombosis (DVT) may be the culprit. Doctors at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute report that the condition affects 200,000 Canadians each year.

DVT will often start small, as a clot in a vein below your knee, but it can grow quickly. "Once it moves up into your thigh, pieces can break off and travel to your lung. This can cause a condition called pulmonary embo­lism, which can be fatal:'

DVT is most often caused by immobil­ity—staying in bed after surgery, for example, or a long plane flight—in addition to condi­tions such as cancer, or during pregnancy.

The most important thing to remember about any form of leg pain: Trust your instincts. If the discomfort you're experienc­ing is sudden or new, prevents you from func­tioning normally or just doesn't feel right, never take a chance—play it safe, and talk to your doctor ASAP.

Ways to improve your health

ONCE YOUR DOCTOR determines the cause of your leg pain, there are many good treatment options.

  • Physical therapy can include core-strengthening exercises.
  • Ice overextended muscles for 24 hours, four to six times a day, elevate your leg and apply an ice pack for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off. Also, drink at least 750 millilitres (12-ounces) of water 30 to 60 minutes before your workout; hydra­tion will help your muscles work better.
  • Yoga can be very good for RLS symptom relief—it calms your system down.
  • Compression stockings can help prevent DVT if you've had a DVT and develop symptoms of pulmo­nary embolism, like sudden shortness of breath, call 911 immediately.

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