Causes of Thigh Pain and When to See a Healthcare Provider

Everything You Need to Know About Thigh Pain

Thigh pain can cause you to have difficulty walking, running, or climbing stairs. Sometimes inner thigh pain or upper thigh pain can occur after trauma or an injury. Other times, it may begin without an obvious reason.

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

thigh pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

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

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 a healthcare provider that your low back is actually causing your thigh pain.

If any particular activities or body positions seem to trigger your thigh pain, consider writing them down. Keeping track of your thigh pain in a journal can help a healthcare provider 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 are 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 a healthcare provider 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 due to 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.

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 (leg cramp).

If a blood clot causes leg pain, it is usually in the back of the calf and is much less common in the thigh

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 Healthcare Provider

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 healthcare provider is necessary for 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 a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

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

  • Severe pain that limits your ability to function (like having difficulty walking)
  • Thigh pain accompanied by fever or malaise (can be a sign of infection)
  • Thigh pain with redness, swelling, and warmth of your skin (can sign of a blood clot)
  • A muscle strain or tear that causes your thigh to look deformed
  • Thigh pain that comes on suddenly and limits your ability to walk could be due to a pinched nerve in your back

Most cases of thigh pain can be diagnosed accurately by a healthcare provider.

Some thigh pain caused by nerve compression or neurological conditions may require a neurologist to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

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This video has been medically reviewed by Oluseun Olufade, MD.

Diagnosis of Thigh Pain

When visiting a healthcare provider, they will likely ask about the nature of your pain, how it started, and how it changes.

Questions they may ask 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?

The healthcare provider 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 the healthcare provider 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 spinal cord and the soft tissue around your thigh. It may be used to look for evidence of a pinched nerve, or 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.

A healthcare provider should be able to diagnose your thigh pain once the clinical exam and diagnostic testing are complete. From there, they will move forward with your treatment.

How Is Thigh Pain Treated?

Treatment for your thigh pain is based on your diagnosis. In some cases, you will be able to treat your thigh pain at home. However, some medical issues that cause thigh pain are emergencies.

If your pain is caused by a blood clot, you need to get medical attention right away. A blood clot often requires anti-embolism care and management with blood thinning medication.

Most thigh pain is not caused by a life-threatening problem and can be managed 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 relieve pressure from spinal nerves. Exercises that correct your posture may also be helpful.

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

Exercise can also relieve symptoms and prevent thigh and leg pain from coming back.

Medication

A healthcare provider may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication if the cause of your pain is an inflammatory condition such as tendonitis or an acute strain.

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

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

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

Complementary and 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 decrease pain.

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

Applying heat may be helpful after visible signs of inflammation (like redness or swelling) go away or for chronic conditions involving stiff muscles or joints. Heat can help relax tense muscles and increase blood flow to promote healing.

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

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

Physical Therapy and 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 and 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 (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 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, 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, see a healthcare provider immediately if the pain starts suddenly or comes with other unusual symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

The cause of thigh pain is often 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 a healthcare provider 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes leg pain at night?

    Leg pain or cramps at night may be caused by sitting for extended periods of time, sitting improperly, overuse of leg muscles, or standing and working on concrete floors for a long time.

  • What causes inner thigh pain?

    Inner thigh pain is often caused by a muscle strain or an underlying health condition such as a hernia, kidney stones, or osteoarthritis. However, there are many other potential causes of inner thigh pain.

    The first step in treatment should be meeting with a healthcare provider who can diagnose the issue.

  • Which muscles are in the front of the thighs?

    The quadriceps muscles are located in front of the thighs. These muscles straighten the knee and help flex the hip.

  • What causes numbness in the thighs?

    Potential causes of numbness in the thighs include a pinched spinal nerve, spinal stenosis, sciatica, and multiple sclerosis.

  • What nerve causes pain in front of the thigh?

    Compression of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve (a major sensory nerve in your thigh) can cause pain or numbness in the front or outer part of your thigh. This condition is called meralgia paresthetica or Bernhardt-Roth syndrome.

  • What causes pain in upper inner thigh and groin?

    The most common causes are a pulled groin muscle (muscle strain), inguinal hernia, kidney stones, or osteoarthritis in the hips.

  • What does sciatica leg pain feel like?

    Sciatica leg pain can feel several different ways in one or both of your legs:

    • Leg cramp
    • Burning sensation
    • Sharp, shooting pain that goes down your leg
    • Mild tinging or numbness, like pins and needles
    • Dull ache
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.