Why Do My Legs Ache? -- Causes and Cures
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Last updated December  1, 2017 (originally published January 15, 2013)

By Alison Turner, Featured Columnist

Leg pain is not in one of the top five areas of pain for
Americans, but for those of us who have experienced aches
and pains in the leg we know that it is no trivial matter.  
Indeed, pain of any kind, when it is painful enough, can lower
household income and eventually lead to unemployment.  
According to a 2010 study led by Dr. Catherine Johannes of
Waltham, Massachusetts, chronic pain is “correlated with
indicators of poorer socioeconomic status.”  

Why might our legs be aching, and what can we do about it?  
Pains and aches that are particular to the legs can result in very
special consequences: walking, for example, might prove more
difficult if our legs suffer than if the pain is in the arms.  Leg
pain can also affect your balance, increasing your risk for falls

[Editor's note: You should care deeply about reducing your
chances of falling and breaking your hip because, studies have
shown, a full 50% of people who break their hips never walk

Read the list below of  leg-ache risk factors and associations, as
discovered by researchers from around the world.

Varicose Veins – Dreadfully Painful.  Will Stockings Help?
We’ve experienced them ourselves, or sympathized with our
friends who can’t make them stop: either way, varicose veins
are a reality.  Varicose veins are not only troublesome visually
to those afflicted by their twisty, spider-web appearance below
the skin’s surface: they can also cause leg pain and swelling.  

Varicose veins occur when the veins in the leg do not
adequately carry blood back to the heart because valves are
damaged or the walls of the veins have weakened, causing the
pooling of blood in the legs.  This could happen because of (un)
lucky genes, multiple pregnancies, body type (particularly being
tall or overweight), and prolonged sitting or standing.

Jobs such as hairdressers, police officers or office workers that
require you to stand or to sit for hours on end raise your risk
for varicose veins. For example, a study in 2014 from the Chest
Hospital of the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Taiwan found
that 24% of all hairdressers examined had varicose veins.

In 2008, W. Blattler with the Center for Vascular Diseases in
Zurich, along with a colleague,  tried to pinpoint how much
pressure is enough pressure to alleviate the pain arising from
varicose veins.  The study included over 1450 patients, and
found that compression hosiery exerting pressure on the ankle
with 10-22 mmHg “had a clear effect on oedema and
symptoms” when compared to pressures of less than 10mmHg.

It seems the science of hosiery has reached new precision.  
When we could already control color, thickness, pattern, and
style of the tights, there is a new, varicose-vein-alleviating
variable: pressure.  Hey, if the choices are out there we might
as well pick the ones that fit. (Read more about
remedies for varicose veins.)

Exercise Related Leg Pain?  Try Orthotics.

Whether you’re training for a marathon or sputtering out a mile
once or twice a week, you may have experienced pain in the
legs after exercise.  This exercise-related leg pain could come
from many causes, such as inadequate stretching after
exercise, or even overuse.  If leg pain persists (and there is not
an immediate injury to the legs, such as a sprain) you may
want to consider adding a little something extra to pound on
when you run: have you ever tried orthotics?

In 2010, Tricia Austin with the Department of Physical Therapy
and Athletic Training at Saint Louis University and other
researchers  investigated how the use of foot orthotics
alleviated “exercise related leg pain,” also known as ERLP, in
athletes running cross country.  Gathering data from over two
hundred high school and college cross country athletes, the
study found that over 17% of runners used foot orthotics –
83.8% of those using foot orthotics reported a history of
ERLP.  Furthermore, “most using orthotics for ERLP reported a
decrease in ERLP symptoms.”

If you think orthotics might be what you need to keep your
exercise pain-free, consult your doctor, shoe-seller, or trainer
(whoever you trust most with your feet and legs) for options.

Horse Chestnut Seed.

Chronic venous insufficiency is a condition in which the leg
veins do not allow blood to travel back to the heart, causing
blood in the legs to pool.   If this condition is left untreated it
can cause several symptoms, such as itching and fatigue, as
well as leg pain or swelling.  While compression stockings may
help some people with this pain (see above), in 2012,
researchers M.H. Pittler and E. Ernst  discovered another
method of treatment against venous insufficiency-related leg
pain: horse chestnut seed extract.

Aesculus hippocastanum L. is a herbal remedy that most of us
have never heard of, but that may sound more familiar in its
common name, horse chestnut seed extract.  This report
conducted seventeen controlled trials, wherein capsules of
horse chestnuts seed extract were taken for over two to
sixteen weeks by patients with symptoms of leg pain and
oedema.   Six studies “reported a clear reduction of leg pain
when the herbal extract was compared with placebo,” with
only “mild and infrequent” adverse affects, such as dizziness,
nausea, and headache.

If you don’t have an herbal garden of your own, or if you
haven’t gotten around to incorporating horse chestnut seed, it
wouldn’t hurt to seek out the nearest natural medicines store –
you never know what they might have.

Claudication (Leg Pain) Gone With Only Two Months Of

What are the odds that there’s a name for every pain we’ve
ever felt?  What are the odds that there’s two?  One of the
conditions that may be to blame for your aching legs, for
example, is claudication – ever heard of it?  You may have been
standing on it (so to speak) the whole time.

The Mayo Clinic clarifies that while you may be able to scream
the word “claudication!” in anger against your leg pain, it is
technically a symptom of a different condition, such as
peripheral artery disease (see below).  

Claudication is pain arising from not enough blood flow during
exercise.  Claudication usually affects the legs, but it’s possible
in the arms, as well.  This pain is usually noticed at first during
exercise, but as it worsens you may feel it even at rest.

In 2011, Andrew Gardner with the General Clinical Research
Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
and two colleagues  conducted clinical trials to determine what
kind of exercise would “efficaciously change claudication onset
time (COT) and peak walking time (PWT) in patients with
peripheral artery disease and claudication.”  

In this study, 142 patients were divided into groups, one of
which competed an exercise program consisting of intermittent
walking until pain arising from claudication three days per
week, while another group completed “control intervention.”  
Results showed that changes in claudication onset time and
peak walking time were “consistently greater than changes
after the control intervention,” particularly in the first two
months of exercise, and are “maintained with further training.”

Whether or not you know precisely what to call your leg pain, it
might be worth a shot to try walking it off.

Although walking is difficult for those with claudication, stair
climbing is often manageable, according to a 1995 study from
Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Stair climbing elicited
a lower cardiovascular demand than walking in claudication

Diabetes and Peripheral Artery Disease: A Dangerous Duo
for Leg Pain

Diabetes, the condition in which blood sugar levels are too
high, currently affects more than 20 million Americans.  A
similarly concerning condition called
peripheral arterial disease,
or PAD, wherein plaque builds up and hardens the arteries
leading to the legs, happens to couple with diabetes more
frequently than any of us would like.  PAD causes pain and
numbness to the legs, and can also increase the risk of
infection in those limbs – in serious cases, amputation may be
required.   Testing from Minnesota suggests that as the number
of patients with both
diabetes and PAD grows, so will the
number of aching legs.

In 2011, Dr. Tracie Collins with the Department of Medicine at
the University of Minnesota  led a team in a study researching
how “home-based walking intervention” might improve
walking ability and quality of life in patients with both PAD and
diabetes.  145 patients with
diabetes and PAD were
randomized, and took place in a 6-month behavioral
intervention that noted “levels of readiness to engage in
routine walking for exercise.”  After the 6-month time frame,
the home-based walking intervention improved “walking speed
and quality of life in people with diabetes and PAD.”  The team
advises that clinicians recommend this therapy for relevant

In addition to doing some light walking as suggested by the
study above,there are several lifestyle choices you can make to
reduce your risk for PAD – most immediately, you can stop
smoking: the National Heart Lund and Blood Institute lists
“smoking” as the “main risk factor” for PAD. (Read more about
natural remedies for hardened or stiff arteries.)

Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome Causes Leg Pain
– Not Only in Athletes

Have you ever spent time looking for reasons to not exercise?  
If so, you may have come across a condition called chronic
exertional compartment syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic
defines as an exercise-induced neuromuscular condition
causing pain and swelling in the muscles of arms and legs.   
Unfortunately, using this condition as a good reason not to
exercise isn’t a valid excuse, according to researchers in
Sweden – they found that sedentary people can be affected, as

In 2007, David Emundsson with the Department of Surgery
and Perioperative Science at Umea University in Sweden  
directed a study on who can be affected by chronic exertional
compartment syndrome.  Gathering data from 73 consecutive
patients with “a history of exercise-induced pain,” the team
found that 36 of these patients had chronic exertional
compartment syndrome.  Those with the condition were broken
into four different categories: 18 from overuse, 10 from earlier
trauma, 4 as insulin-treated diabetics, and 4 “others.”  The
report suggests that chronic exertional compartment syndrome
has a “multifactorial etiology and is more common in sedentary
individuals that has been recognized previously.”

If you were using fear of leg pain as an excuse not to exercise,
you’re not off the hook; it seems that you can end up with
chronic exertional compartment syndrome even without using
your legs.  The Mayo Clinic warns, unfortunately, that
“conservative treatments typically don’t help with chronic
exertional compartment syndrome,” but that “surgery is
usually successful.”   If you suffer from leg pain (whether or
not you’re an athlete) consider talking to your doctor about
this syndrome in particular, and what options you have for

Your Leg Pain May Really Be Back Pain.

Will we ever be able to trust our bodies?  One trick these
miracle machines may be pulling is that when something’s
wrong with the back (when you suffer from back pain for
whatever reason), that same pain may be the root of that
increasing pain in the legs.

In 2011, a group of experts including Dr. Jonathan Hill with the
Arthritis Research UK National Primary Care Centre at Keele
University in the UK  analyzed two cohort studies on patients
from 13 general practice facilities to see how
low back pain
related to self-reported leg pain.  Results showed that out of
over 1,200 patients, 37% experienced only lower back pain;
25% experienced lower back pain in conjunction with leg pain
above the knee, and 38% suffered from below-knee leg pain
with their lower back pain.  Furthermore, those patients with
leg pain reported “significantly worse” pain than those patients
with lower back pain alone.

The bottom line?  If you already experience back pain, don’t be
too surprised if you start feeling aches in your legs: and if you
feel pain in both places, be open to the possibility that both
pains may stem from the same problem. (Read more about
back pain causes and remedies.)

Endometriosis and Leg Aches.

It is not only pain from the lower back (see above) that can
lead to leg pain – pain from a woman’s uterus can reach the
same end.  Endometriosis, when the tissue lining the inside of
the uterus grows outside of the uterus and irritates
surrounding tissue, is painful for obvious reasons in areas
surrounding the uterus.   Regrettably, researchers from the
Harvard Medical School have found that the pain resulting from
endometriosis might not stop around a woman’s uterus – it
could also be the cause of leg pain.

In 2011, S.A. Missmer and G.M. Bove with the Department of
Obstetrics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard
Medical School  surveyed 94 women who had taken part of an
endometriosis support group.  Results showed that 51% of
these women reported leg pain, and that “the likelihood of
experiencing leg pain was related to weight gain since age 18,
age, and height.”  The report concludes that leg pain is a
“prevalent complication of endometriosis, and that the disease
may affect multiple peripheral nerves.”  

There is also room for hope in these findings.  The patients
studied reported several methods of treatment including
exercise, over-the-counter medications, and message therapy.  
While these methods showed “variable results,” it may be good
news for tired legs that there is opportunity for relief.


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Walking regularly can help relieve many forms of leg pain.