Leg Pain: Most Common Causes and Management

September 3, 2019

Assessment of leg pain includes a broad differential diagnosis. Complaints can fall under several systemic categories. Etiologies include but not limited to pathologies of the musculoskeletal system, the peripheral vascular system, the peripheral nervous system and the integumentary system. A few of these pain complaints are discussed below.  

Radicular pain commonly described as “sharp, stabbing, electrical sensations” that travel down the leg is a common form of leg pain. The origin of this pain is usually from the axial spine as a result of compressed nerve roots from lumbosacral disc herniations or degenerative changes. This can ultimately result in lower leg pain, muscle weakness and gait deviations. Management is typically multimodal with a combination of physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication trial, non-opioid analgesic medication therapy, and neuraxial injections. Opioid therapy is not indicated as first line management of radicular pain. Surgical decompression may be required if there is evidence of neurological compromise of lower extremity function. New advances in neuromodulation therapy have also provided an avenue for relief.

Leg pain of musculoskeletal causes can be seen in the setting of traumatic and overuse injuries. Traumatic injuries often come with a supportive history describing the mechanism of injury. One example of this is anterior cruciate ligament rupture from a high impact forced applied to the lateral knee (seen often in sports related activities).  Other causes are seen in settings of overuse. One example of overuse injury is due to persistent high impact running called medial tibial stress syndrome or “shin splints.” This is often seen in long distance runners with complaints of anterior leg pain. Recommended management would be to maintain activity with reduced running mileage, however, tibial stress fracture must be on the differential diagnosis list and be screened for.  Plain radiographs may not reveal stress fractures immediately and MRI is the preferred imaging modality if suspicion of a stress fracture is high .

A deep venous thrombosis (DVT) often results in significant calf pain, redness at the site and increase in swelling of the legs. This is often a result of prolonged immobility  which occurs in post-surgical states or after a long flight. Other causes include hypercoagulable states such as pregnancy or cancer and direct trauma. Diagnosis of a DVT  is performed with a venous Doppler Ultrasound which allows for visualization of appropriate blood flow through the veins of the legs. A dangerous complication of a DVT  is a pulmonary embolism. Treatment with blood thinners such as heparin or enoxaparin is the usual course of management. More aggressive management options include placement of an inferior vena cava filter  for embolism prevention and surgical thrombectomy.

Another common cause of leg pain is peripheral arterial disease (PAD). This is usually seen in those over the age of 40 years old as a result of long-standing coronary atherosclerosis in combination with  other risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking. Patients may present with non-healing wounds, hair loss, skin texture changes and intermittent claudication.  Severe PAD  will result in lower extremity ischemia and, in rare cases, lower limb amputations.

Lastly, skin infections in the leg after trauma tic injury, bite or open incision can also result in leg  pain. Commonly known as cellulitis, this  cause of leg pain presents with a quick progressive spread of a hot, painful, red inflamed area of the skin. Treatment for cellulitis includes oral or intravenous antibiotics and local wound care.

There are many causes of leg pain. The key to management of leg pain is to establish a clear diagnosis by determining the system being affected by a thorough history and physical examination as noted in the examples discussed above.

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