Causes of Thigh Pain

Everything you need to know about thigh pain

Thigh pain is a common problem that many people experience. It may come on suddenly or gradually, and it can cause you to have difficulty with normal functional mobility like walking, running, or climbing stairs. Sometimes thigh pain can occur after trauma or an injury, and other times it may come on for no apparent reason.

Anatomically speaking, your thigh is the area of your upper leg between your hip joint and your knee. Your quadriceps muscles reside in the front of your thigh and serve to bend your hip up and straighten your knee. Your hamstrings are in the back; these muscles help to bend your knee. Groin muscles on the inner aspect of your thigh pull your leg in, while your hip muscles, like the gluteus medius, pull your thigh out to the side. Several nerves travel down your thighs.

Causes

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

Thigh pain may be caused by a pinched spinal nerve. Herniated lumbar discs or low back arthritis may pinch on the nerves that exit your spinal column and travel down your thigh. 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.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition where your spinal nerves are compressed by the bony anatomy of your spine. Symptoms of stenosis include:

  • Pain in both thighs and legs
  • Numb and heavy feelings in your thighs

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

Trauma

If you have any sort of traumatic event occur where your thigh is struck, this may cause pain. Usually, the cause of your thigh pain is obvious after trauma; your thigh was injured, and now it hurts. Symptoms from a blow to the thigh may include pain in the front or back of your thigh that is worse with activity. Bruising may be present. The pain is usually intermittent; it comes and goes depending on your activity level.

Quadriceps or Hamstring Tendonitis

Overuse and repetitive stress to your thigh muscles may cause inflammation in your tendons, a condition that 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
  • Weak feeling in your muscles in the front or back of your thigh

Symptoms usually last for four to six weeks and slowly get better with gentle exercise.

Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome

Your iliotibial band is a thick piece of fascia and tissue that courses 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
  • Tight feelings 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 pain in your thigh. This is usually accompanied by numbness and tingling and a sudden onset of muscle weakness. This is a medical emergency, so if you suspect you have had a stroke, go to your local emergency department right away.

Ways to Recognize a Stroke (And What You Can Do About It)

Blood Clot

A blood clot in your lower leg or thigh may cause thigh pain. This is usually accompanied by warmth and redness in your thigh. A blood clot needs to be diagnosed and managed immediately; if the clot dislodges from your vein, it can travel to your lungs and become an often fatal pulmonary embolism.

When to See a Doctor

Many people with thigh pain are able to treat it with no medical intervention. Sometimes, you need to see a doctor or medical professional for thigh pain. 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 subside 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 normally. 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 family doctor should check things out.
  • Thigh pain with redness and warmth of your skin. This may be a sign of a blood clot and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Thigh pain that is accompanied by deformity. A muscle strain or tear may cause your thigh to look deformed, and 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. A pinched nerve in your back may be the culprit here, and checking in with an orthopedist is recommended.

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 ask you questions about the nature of your pain and how it started. Your doctor will also need to know how your pain behaves. Is it constant or intermittent, and does it change with certain movements of positions? How long has your pain been bothering you, and did it come on after trauma or for no apparent reason?

Your doctor will likely examine your thigh and the surrounding joints and muscles. He or she may palpate, or touch, your thigh. He or she will likely test your strength and watch you walk and move about.

Various tests may be done to diagnose your thigh pain. These may include:

  • X-ray: This test examines the bones of your thigh, knee, or hip and can rule in or out fracture as a cause of your pain.
  • Electromyographic (EMG) test: The EMG gives your doctor information about how the nerves of your thigh are functioning and can 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 and may be used to rule in or out muscle or tendon tears as a cause of your thigh pain.
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound test may be used to visualize arteries and veins around your thigh. This can be used to rule in or out a blood clot as the cause of your pain.

Your doctor should be able to have an accurate diagnosis of your thigh pain once the clinical examination and diagnostic testing is complete. Then, focused treatment can begin.

Treatment

Treatment for your thigh pain is based on an accurate diagnosis and cause of your condition. Obviously, some conditions that cause 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, and a blood clot requires anti-embolism care and blood thinning medication to manage.

Thankfully, most thigh pain is not caused by a sinister 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 of musculoskeletal origin. If your pain is coming from your back, lumbar stretches and strengthening exercises may be done to alleviate pressure from spinal nerves. Postural correction exercises 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 to do for your thigh.

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

3 Easy Stretches for Your Thighs

Medication

Medicine may be prescribed by your doctor to treat your thigh pain. If an inflammatory condition, such as tendonitis or an acute strain, is causing your pain, your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine.

Analgesic medication may also be used to treat thigh pain. For severe pain, a prescription strength analgesic may be used; for mild symptoms, over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be prescribed.

Complimentary/Alternative Medicine

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

Heat

Application of heat to the painful area of your thigh may help decrease pain. Heat can also increase circulation to the painful area, bringing in nutrients to help with healing. Heat can be applied for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Care should be taken to monitor your skin to avoid burns.

Ice

Ice may help to decrease painful inflammation in your thigh's muscles and tendons. Ice should be applied for 10 to 20 minutes several times a day, and care should be taken to avoid frost burns to your skin.

Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care

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

Acupuncture or Massage Therapy

Some people benefit from acupuncture to help treat their thigh pain. Acupuncture needles placed in specific meridians of the body may be applied by a licensed professional. Massage therapy can also help to improve circulation and relieve muscle knots and tension, leading to decreased thigh pain.

Creams and Salves

Various home remedies for thigh pain that is muscular in origin are available. These may include creams or salves like Biofreeze or BenGay. Some people use arnica gel to treat their thigh pain. While these may offer temporary relief of symptoms, they typically are not used to treat the underlying cause of your thigh pain.

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.

A Word From Verywell

Most cases of thigh pain are easily diagnosed and treated, and most thigh pain causes only minor and temporary functional limitations. Sometimes, thigh pain can be serious, and getting to a doctor for accurate diagnosis and treatment is essential. Understanding your thigh pain and what to do when you feel it can help you get the right care so you can quickly return to your normal lifestyle and everyday activities.

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