Causes of Thigh Pain

Everything You Need to Know About Thigh Pain

Thigh pain can cause you to have difficulty walking, running, or climbing stairs. Sometimes the pain can occur after trauma or an injury. Other times, it may begin for no apparent reason.

This article discusses the common causes of thigh pain along with potential treatments. Take note of the signs and symptoms that indicate when you should see a doctor. In rare cases, thigh pain can be a sign of a life-threatening condition.

thigh pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Parts of the Thigh

Your thigh is the area of your upper leg between your hip joint and your knee. It consists of several parts:

  • Your quadriceps muscles are in the front of your thigh. They allow you to straighten your knee and bend at the hip.
  • Your hamstring muscles are on the back side of your thigh. They allow you to bend your knee.
  • Groin muscles are on the inner part of your thigh. These allow you to pull your leg toward your abdomen.
  • Your hip muscles, like the gluteus medius, pull your thigh out to the side.

In addition, the thigh is home to three major nerves (and their branches).

Causes of Thigh Pain

There are many different causes of thigh pain—some obvious and others not so much. Understanding your thigh pain and what may be causing it is the first step to properly treating your condition. Common causes of thigh pain may include:

Pinched Spinal Nerve

Both herniated lumbar discs and low back arthritis may pinch on the nerves that exit your spinal column and travel down your thigh, resulting in thigh pain.

Symptoms of a pinched nerve may include:

  • Pain in the front or back of your thigh
  • Numbness or tingling in your thigh
  • Weakness in your thigh muscles
  • Difficulty sitting or rising from sitting

Pinched nerves typically cause thigh pain that changes depending on your spine's position, so this can be a clue to your doctor that your low back is actually causing your thigh pain.

If there are any particular activities or body positions that seem to trigger your thigh pain, consider writing them down. Keeping track of your thigh pain in a journal can help your doctor pinpoint the cause and find the most successful treatment option.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is considered a degenerative condition because it worsens over time. Most people who have it are over the age of 40. The condition occurs when your spinal nerves are compressed by the bones in your spine. Often, this is simply a result of daily wear and tear experienced over the course of your life.

Symptoms of spinal stenosis include:

  • Pain in both thighs and legs
  • Feelings of numbness or heaviness in your thighs

The pain from spinal stenosis is typically felt in both legs at the same time. Symptoms are made worse with standing and walking, and almost immediately relieved with sitting.

Trauma

Any sort of traumatic blow to your thigh can be painful, as there are many nerves running down your thigh.

Symptoms from a blow to the thigh may include pain in the front or back of your thigh that worsens with activity. You may also have bruising.

Bruising that does not improve within a few days or continues to worsen should be evaluated by your doctor to ensure no other injuries have occurred.

Quadriceps or Hamstring Tendonitis

Overuse and repeated stress to your thigh muscles may cause inflammation in your tendons. This condition is known as tendonitis.

Symptoms of quad or hamstring tendonitis include:

  • Pain in the front or back of your thigh, usually near your knee or hip
  • Difficulty walking or climbing stairs due to pain
  • A feeling of weak muscles in the front or back of your thigh

Symptoms usually last for four to six weeks and slowly get better with gentle exercises such as walking, leg raises, wall squats, and the Nordic hamstring stretch.

Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome

Your iliotibial band is a thick piece of tissue and fascia (connective tissue densely packed with nerves) that runs down the outer side of your thigh. Sometimes it can become irritated with overuse or repeated stress. This is a common running injury known as iliotibial band friction syndrome (ITBS).

Symptoms of ITBS include:

  • Pain on the outside part of your thigh near your hip or knee
  • A feeling of tightness near your hip or knee
  • Difficulty walking or running

The pain from ITBS usually gets worse with increased activity and better with rest. Many people benefit from physical therapy to learn stretches and strengthening exercises for ITBS.

Stroke

Sometimes, a cerebral vascular accident (CVA), also known as a stroke, can cause abrupt pain in your thigh. This is usually accompanied by numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness that begins suddenly.

A stroke is a medical emergency; if you suspect you have had a stroke, go to your local emergency department right away.

Blood Clot

A blood clot in your lower leg or thigh may cause thigh pain along with warmth, swelling, and redness. Some people experience a cramping sensation similar to a Charley horse.

A blood clot needs to be diagnosed and managed immediately—if the clot moves from your vein, it can travel to your lungs and may result in a fatal pulmonary embolism.

When to See a Doctor

Many people with thigh pain are able to treat it on their own, while others need medical attention right away. So how do you know when a doctor is necessary for your thigh pain?

In general, it is better to err on the side of caution. If you have thigh pain that you are unsure about or that does not get better with time and/or medication, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms that warrant a visit to a medical professional include:

  • Severe pain that limits your ability to function. If you are having difficulty walking normally due to your pain, visit your doctor.
  • Pain that is accompanied by fever or malaise. This could be a sign of infection, and your doctor should check things out.
  • Thigh pain with redness, swelling, and warmth of your skin. This may be a sign of a blood clot and requires immediate medical attention.
  • A muscle strain or tear may cause your thigh to look deformed. A visit to an orthopedic surgeon may be needed to accurately diagnose and treat your condition.
  • Thigh pain that comes on suddenly and limits your ability to walk could be due to a pinched nerve in your back. An orthopedist can diagnose this condition.

Most cases of thigh pain can be diagnosed accurately by your family physician or orthopedist. Some thigh pain that is caused by nerve compression or neurological conditions may require a neurologist to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Diagnosis

The first step in treating your thigh pain is to have your doctor accurately diagnose it. When visiting your doctor, they will likely ask about the nature of your pain, how it started, and how it behaves. Questions you may be asked include:

  • Is the pain constant or does it come and go?
  • Does the pain change with certain movements or positions?
  • How long has your pain been bothering you?
  • Did the pain begin after trauma? Or is there no apparent reason for it?

Your doctor may palpate (examine by touch) your thigh and check the surrounding joints and muscles. In addition, they will likely test your strength and watch you walk and move about. Various tests may be done to diagnose your thigh pain.

Diagnostic Tests

  • X-ray: This test examines the bones of your thigh, knee, or hip to look for fractures or arthritis as a cause of your pain.
  • Electromyographic (EMG) test: The EMG shows your doctor how the nerves of your thigh are functioning. It can also show if a pinched nerve or loss of nerve function may be causing your thigh pain.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI shows pictures of the soft tissue around your thigh. It may be used to look for muscle or tendon tears.
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound test may be used to visualize arteries and veins around your thigh. This can be used to check for a blood clot.

Your doctor should be able to diagnose your thigh pain once the clinical examination and diagnostic testing is complete. From there, they will move forward with your treatment.

Treatment

Treatment for your thigh pain is based on an accurate diagnosis of your condition. In some cases, you will be able to treat your thigh pain at home. However, some causes of thigh pain are an emergency.

If your pain is caused by a stroke or blood clot, you need to get medical attention right away. Treatment for a stroke involves a team of medical professionals. A blood clot requires anti-embolism care and management with blood thinning medication.

Thankfully, most thigh pain is not caused by a life-threatening problem and can be managed quite successfully. There are various things you can do to treat your thigh pain, depending on the cause of your pain and the severity of your condition.

Exercise

Exercise has been proven to help thigh pain that involves your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. This is known as your musculoskeletal system.

If your pain is coming from your back, lumbar stretches and strengthening exercises may be done to relieve pressure from spinal nerves. Exercises that correct your posture may also be helpful.

Thigh pain from a quad or hamstring strain responds well to stretching and strengthening exercises. Your local physical therapist can help determine the best stretches for your thigh pain.

Exercise can also help you maintain an appropriate weight and body mass index. This may relieve your symptoms and prevent thigh and leg pain from coming back.

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory if the cause of your pain is an inflammatory condition such as tendonitis or an acute strain.

For mild symptoms, over-the-counter Advil (ibuprofen) or an anti-inflammatory cream like Aspercreme may be recommended.

While it won't help with inflammation, Tylenol (acetaminophen) may be used to treat discomfort.

For severe pain, a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory and/or pain reliever may be used.

Complementary/Alternative Medicine

Many people with thigh pain benefit from self-care remedies, especially if the pain is mild and does not limit your ability to move.

Ice and Heat

Applying ice when a sudden thigh injury first occurs can help bring down inflammation and, in turn, decrease pain.

Place ice (or an ice pack) in a thin towel and apply it for 10 to 20 minutes several times a day. Never apply it directly against your skin, as this can cause frostburn.

Applying heat may be helpful after visible signs of inflammation (e.g., redness, swelling) go away, or for chronic conditions involving muscle/joint stiffness. Heat can help relax tense muscles and increase blood flow to promote healing.

Heat can be applied for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. You can try a heating pad, an over-the-counter heat wrap, or even a warm bath. Remove heat if it causes discomfort to avoid burning your skin.

If you're unsure of whether to use ice, heat, or both, speak to your doctor about what's right for your condition. For example, while tendonitis is best treated with ice, heat is usually advised for spinal stenosis.

Physical Therapy/Chiropractic Care

If your pain is caused by a pinched spinal nerve, you may benefit from working with a physical therapist or chiropractor. These healthcare professionals can teach you what to do to get pressure off the pinched nerve and restore normal mobility.

Acupuncture/Massage Therapy

Some people benefit from acupuncture to relieve their thigh pain.

According to this ancient Chinese practice, all parts of the body are aligned with specific channels, or meridians, believed to facilitate the flow energy (Qi) and blood. When flow in one or more is interrupted or "blocked," illness is said to result.

During a session, a licensed acupuncturist will determine the affected meridian causing thigh pain. Then, they will place very thin needles into the top layer of your skin at specific points on the body in order to restore healthy flow once again.

Massage therapy can also help with thigh pain by improving circulation, smoothing out muscle knots, and relieving tension.

Whatever treatment you choose for your thigh pain, it is best to see a medical professional first. That way, you can be sure your care is tailored to your specific condition and needs.

Summary

Any thigh injury can be especially painful and make it difficult to move about your day. Treatment depends on the cause of your pain, but may include applying heat or ice, using pain relievers, or going to physical therapy.

Since thigh pain that begins abruptly is a potential symptom of a blood clot or stroke, you should see a doctor immediately if the pain starts suddenly or is accompanied by other unusual symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

The cause of thigh pain is often quite clear. But if you are not sure what is causing it, consider keeping track of any instances when the pain begins or worsens. This will help your doctor diagnose the pain and help you manage it. This way, you can return to your normal lifestyle as quickly as possible and resume the activities you enjoy.

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Article Sources
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