Put the Pep Back in Your Step: Effective, At-Home Treatments for Aching Legs
At one point or another in your life, you’ve probably experienced aching legs. They can be uncomfortable, even painful, and can be caused by a variety of factors. In this post, we’ll break down the three major causes of aching legs — musculoskeletal, vascular, and neurological — and outline the different groups of people who are more likely to experience this issue. Then, we’ll describe eight at-home treatments for aching legs that you can try yourself today. Plus, we’ll briefly explain when you should seek out a doctor for professional help for leg pain if the home remedies don’t bring you relief.
What Causes Aching Legs?
Just as with pain located anywhere in the body, the potential causes of aching legs are numerous; The Mayo Clinic lists nearly 50 possible causes of leg pain. However, some of these causes are significantly more common than others, and they generally fall into three categories: musculoskeletal, vascular, and neurological.
These causes are related either to the muscles or the skeleton, which encompasses a wide range of possible culprits. Injuries and strains, a common cause of leg pain, fall under the musculoskeletal category; these include sore muscles, ankle sprains, stress fractures, shin splints and broken bones. Other musculoskeletal causes include arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis and night leg cramps.
Vascular refers to the vessels of the body — especially arteries and veins — that carry blood and lymph fluid. Possible vascular causes of leg pain include peripheral arterial disease (PAD), deep vein thrombosis (DVT), cellulitis, infections, varicose veins and varicose eczema.
Leg pain may also be caused by damaged or malfunctioning nerves. These causes include restless leg syndrome, nerve damage (a.k.a. neuropathy) and sciatic nerve pain. Nerve pain may be felt even at rest, when the legs are not moving or carrying any weight.
Who Is Most Likely to Suffer from Aching Legs?
Certain groups of people are more prone to suffer from aching or painful legs than others. Athletes and workout fanatics are more likely to suffer from musculoskeletal pain in their legs, since they’re constantly pushing their bodies to the limit and may even injure themselves during exercise. In particular, long-distance runners and other endurance athletes often experience overuse injuries such as stress fractures due to repetitive stress placed on the legs.
Pregnant women frequently experience tired, aching legs, due to the extra weight they’re carrying, swelling and increased cardiovascular stress. Children may also have growth pains all over their body, including in their legs, as tendons stretch to accommodate bone growth. Many seniors also experience leg pain for a variety of reasons that can include poor circulation, arthritis, and accidental falls.
Diabetics and pre-diabetics may also find themselves with aching legs as a result of their condition. Having high blood sugar over a long period of time can cause nerve damage, particularly in the legs and feet. Neuropathy can manifest itself in a variety of sensations, including pain, aching, tingling, numbness and burning.
Overweight or obese individuals often find themselves experiencing leg pain, especially during physical activity. The added weight puts a lot of stress on the muscles, bones and joints, which can lead to inflammation or injury. Being overweight or obese is also a known risk factor for other conditions that can lead to leg pain, such as diabetes.
Among many other side effects, smokers can also experience pain in the limbs, including the legs. Smoking causes the arteries and veins to become inflamed, which restricts blood flow, especially in the extremities farthest from the heart. This can lead to peripheral artery disease (PAD), which often results in pain and cramping in the legs, especially during walking.
Individuals who sit or stand for the majority of the day often find themselves with tired, aching legs. Staying in one position — either sitting or standing — can cause blood to pool in the feet, resulting in pain and increasing the risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and other blood clot issues. For those who stand for an entire shift, such as nurses and flight attendants, having to bear their weight for 8 to 12 hours at a time also puts a lot of stress on the muscles and joints, further contributing to aching legs.
How to Prevent Aching Legs
Thankfully, some (though not all) causes of leg pain can be avoided. Athletes should take care to wear supportive shoes, properly warm up and cool down before each workout and be sure to stretch the muscles thoroughly. To avoid overuse injuries, slowly increase the intensity and length of workouts, rather than trying to do too much too soon. Endurance athletes should take special care to rest often to avoid being sidelined by leg injuries; for example, shin splints can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months to heal, so it’s better to prevent such injuries on the front end.
Certain lifestyle changes can reduce your chances of developing leg pain. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly increases your chances of maintaining healthy weight — which in turn decreases the odds that you’ll develop diabetes and/or leg pain. If you smoke, quitting will result in a host of health benefits, including riddance of leg pain.
Those who stay in one position all day can also take steps to prevent aching legs. If you sit most of the day, try to talk walking breaks, and see if you can get a standing desk to use part of the time. Those who either sit or stand can also benefit from graduated compression stockings, which encourage good circulation and can stop aching legs before they start.
How to Relieve Aching Legs
If you’re already experiencing aching legs, there are many remedies you can try at home to relieve your symptoms and soothe aching legs.
Stretching can help address a variety of leg pain causes. If your discomfort is caused by sore muscles, stretching them will help dissipate the soreness and reduce stiffness. Stretching can also help address the stiffness and pain caused by arthritis, and it’s a great way for seniors to work on their flexibility as well. Those with sciatic nerve pain may also find that they benefit from stretching.
Common lower body stretches include quadriceps, hamstrings, calf stretches and seated butterfly stretches. You can also try restorative yoga poses that target the lower body, such as reclining pigeon pose, seated pigeon pose, forward pigeon pose and downward-facing dog.
If your aching legs are caused by overuse or stress injuries, taking a break is the best medicine for them. When it comes to this kind of pain, you need to give your body time to heal completely, which means you’ll need to temporarily stop whichever activity caused the aching legs in the first place. Usually, you’ll need to take at least two to four weeks off, and sometimes as long as six months, depending on the severity.
Raise Your Feet
Even if you don’t need to take several weeks or months off from activity, elevating your legs for a quick rest can help soothe aching legs after a lot of walking or a long day on your feet. Elevating your legs above your heart on a leg rest pillow can help improve circulation and reverse any pooling of blood that may have occurred in your feet. By draining blood and fluids from your feet, elevating your legs can reduce swelling and varicose veins. Elevation is a convenient, passive therapy that can be done whenever you are lying or sitting down, such as while sleeping, watching TV, riding in a car or even sitting at a desk.
If your aching legs are due to poor circulation or swelling, a simple garment addition can help with that. Graduated compression stockings apply gentle pressure to your legs — more at the ankle, less at the top — to encourage the blood to keep flowing and stop it from pooling in your extremities. Compression hose can also help reduce swelling and help prevent cardiovascular conditions such as varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Knee high compression socks are the most popular length, but compression stockings come in many different lengths, styles and colors to suit a variety of needs.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Both heat and cold can help mitigate leg pain, though in entirely different ways. Cold causes the blood vessels to contract, restricting the flow of blood and reducing inflammation, swelling and potential tissue damage. Ice also numbs pain, which is why it’s the first-line treatment of choice for sports injuries and inflamed joints. Cold therapy is especially helpful during the first few days after a sprain or flare-up.
On the other hand, heat therapy causes blood vessels to dilate, promotes blood flow and helps muscles to relax. If your leg muscles are tight and stiff after a lot of activity, or if your arthritis is acting up, taking a hot bath or applying a heated rice bag can help your body loosen up. However, if you suffer from neuropathy or are otherwise having trouble perceiving pain or temperature differences in the affected area, hot and cold therapy may not be appropriate.
If your leg pain is at least partially caused by tight, sore or stiff muscles — not a sports injury — a massage can help ease your pain. Directly, massages help inhibit the inflammatory response and promote cellular healing. Indirectly, they also release pain-fighting endorphins, which may explain why some individuals find that getting a massage helps relieve aching legs that are caused by factors beyond just sore muscles, such as vascular or neurological factors. You can try massaging your legs yourself or schedule an appointment with a professional masseuse.
While it won’t cure the cause, over-the-counter painkillers can help temporarily ease your pain if you’re having a really bad flare-up or are nursing an injury. While OTC medications often aren’t strong enough to address neurological pain and other serious causes, pain relievers can help take the edge off inflamed or swollen legs and enable you to try stretching, hot and cold therapy or one of the other solutions listed here.
Easing aching legs is only one positive side effect of a healthy diet, but it’s a good one. Eating a healthy diet addresses several factors that can contribute to aching legs. A healthy diet can help get your weight back into an equally healthy range, and less weight means less stress on your joints, muscles and bones. Eating a healthy diet can also reduce your chances of developing diabetes — or it can help you manage complications (including leg pain caused by neuropathy) if you have been diagnosed.
When to See a Doctor
In many cases, aching legs can be addressed with at-home remedies. However, some causes require professional intervention. You should talk to your doctor:
- if you notice signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, tenderness, and/or a fever;
- if your leg is swollen, pale, or cold;
- if you experience calf pain, especially after prolonged sitting
- if your legs swell and you experience breathing problems at the same time
- if you suddenly develop any serious leg symptoms out of the blue.
If you injure your leg and are unable or put weight on it, or if you experience a popping or grinding sound, you should visit your nearest emergency room.
However, in many cases aching legs can be effectively treated with at-home remedies. From stretching to compression stockings to a healthy diet, there are many therapeutic approaches you can try on your own. If you’re ready to get serious about the discomfort and pain in your legs, start experimenting with one of these eight strategies today.