Is sharp pain in your legs bothering you with sitting, standing, or walking?
Are you having difficulty sleeping due to leg pain?
Are you confused about what is going on and what you should do about these symptoms? Many people have fear because they don’t know what to do when leg pain starts. They start searching the internet and hearing about horrible problems that only further feeds their fear.
Does this sound like you? Then take a deep breath and read on. We have compiled a list of the most common causes of leg pain with symptoms so you can start figuring out what is going on with your body. Then, you will know the next best step to take to get help and eliminate this problem – for good!
We understand the confusion and fear that comes when you start experiencing leg pain. This is why we offer a Free Phone Call with our Specialist Physical Therapists. On this call we will hear your story and help you decide what is the next best step in your journey.
First, one question for you – did your pain start on one side or both sides at the same time?
This question helps to determine what you are suffering from. If your symptoms started on one side then the most common causes are sciatica or compartment syndrome. However, if your symptoms started on both sides at the same time you may be suffering from neuropathy or Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). Read on to find out more about each of these issues and how they may be presenting in your body.
The most common cause of shooting pain down the leg that we see at Physical Therapy for Everybody is sciatica. The hallmark of sciatica symptoms is pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve. This nerve is the largest in the body and starts in the low back, travels through your buttocks, and down the back of your leg.
The pain experience can vary widely, from a mild ache to a sharp, burning sensation or excruciating pain. Some people experience sciatica as a jolt or electric shock that occurs with certain movements.
You may also have numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the affected leg or foot.
Sciatica is often caused when a problem in the spine puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. This may include a herniated disk, bone spur, or narrowing of the spine. And all those things sound very scary.
However, often all of these scary things can be addressed by a Specialist Physical Therapist. Believe me when I tell you that herniated disks can actually heal. Your body has a unique ability to be able to heal every tissue as long as there is proper movement.
More good news – a bone spur or narrowing of the spine does not occur overnight. Your body develops them as an abnormal response to pressure over time. Which means, if you just started having pain and are diagnosed with a bone spur or narrowing of the spine there is hope. The truth is that you have actually been living with the narrowing in the spine or bone spur for years and were pain free. Our job is to figure out why this has started causing pain now and what we can do about it so it doesn’t get worse. Often we find that the pressure on the sciatic nerve is due to poor pelvic alignment, poor motion in your low back, or muscle tension in the hips
There is hope for non-surgical sciatica treatment. You need a Specialist to evaluate exactly what caused your symptoms so an appropriate treatment plan can be developed specifically for you and your sciatica pain.
The next most common cause of a sudden onset of sharp pain in one leg is compartment syndrome. This occurs when the pressure rises in the compartment and increases pressure around the muscle. This one can be super painful.
So, What is a Compartment?
A compartment is a group of muscles, nerves, and blood vessles surrounded by a fascial sheath.
And, what is fascia? Fascia is the layer of tissue in between the muscles and the skin. Have you ever tried to pull the fat off of a steak? The fascia is the sticky layer in the middle that makes it difficult to separate the two.
When the fascia gets tight, it limits the blood flow to that specific area. Decreased blood flow leads to decreased oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and nerves that are located in that compartment.
Compartment syndrome is most commonly seen on the front or back of the calf. Most commonly, people complain of pain and pressure specifically in the front or back of one calf. There may also be numbness, tingling, or burning in that part of your leg.
The muscles in the compartment are getting squeezed which makes them painful. When you try to stretch the muscle you have severe pain. And, the more you exercise, the worse your symptoms get. With compartment syndrome you will often find that you have decreased pain when you are resting.
The initial phases of compartment syndrome are easily treated by a Specialist Physical Therapist. The fascia that is putting pressure on the compartment can be loosened to decreased pressure. However, if symptoms progress to the point that blood flow is being cut off from the area then you will require surgery to free up the fascia and restore normal blood flow.
Compartment syndrome can be a very serious issue and needs to be addressed immediately. If you feel like this may be what you are suffering from then we highly encourage you to call and talk with one of our Specialist Physical Therapists to determine what the next best step is for your body.
What about if your pain started on both sides at the same exact time? Then you are most likely suffering from a neuropathy or Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
What is Neuropathy?
The simple explanation is damage to the nerves in your arms or legs. It’s important to differentiate that neuropathy does not cause damage to the nerves in the spine. This is damage that is specifically affecting the nerves that go into your arms and legs.
If you have neuropathy you will often experience weakness, numbness, and pain in both your legs (or arms) at the same time. You may also find that you have decreased sensation to touch on the skin above the affected muscles. Which can make it difficult to feel the floor (if it’s affecting your feet) or pick up small objects (if it’s affecting your hands).
Not so fun fact - neuropathy can also affect the autonomic nerves which affect blood pressure, perspiration, heart rate, digestion, and bladder function. If you are struggling with bowel, bladder, or digestive problems along with recent onset of shooting pain in your legs then you need to see an MD.
Here’s the key takeaway about neuropathy – all the symptoms listed above come on gradually. People with true neuropathy do not complain about symptoms that started overnight. If you are suffering with neuropathy, you are able to think back and remember that you have been slowly losing balance or have had decreased sensation in your feet. If this sounds like your symptoms then you need to discuss them with a doctor so they can figure out the cause of your neuropathy.
The most common cause of neuropathy is diabetes. Diabetes affects many different tissues in your body which includes the nerves. Working with your doctor to find real solutions to your diabetes can significantly improve your neuropathy symptoms.
The next most common cause of leg pain on both sides is Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). This occurs most commonly in the legs but can be seen in the arms. With PAD, your legs don’t receive enough blood flow to keep up with demand. Which means both of your legs get increasingly painful as you are walking. The more demand you put on the muscles, the more they are calling for increased blood flow.
Other common signs of PAD are coldness in the lower leg or foot, no pulse or weak pulse in the leg or foot, and shiny skin on the legs. If you are suffering with any of these symptoms, then we encourage you to contact your doctor to discuss your options for dealing with PAD.
We hope that we have helped you make sense of your leg pain and what the next best steps are for your body. If you are suffering with a gradual onset of pain in both legs than you most commonly have a systemic issue that needs to be addressed by an MD.
If you are having symptoms only in one leg, then we encourage you to reach out to talk with one of our Specialist Physical Therapists. We will listen to your story and work together to decide on the next best step for addressing your leg pain.