Why do my legs and feet hurt so bad?

Types and causes of leg pain

Different causes of leg pain can have similar symptoms. Getting a correct diagnosis increases the chances of receiving appropriate treatment, if necessary. Identifying the symptoms and their onset can help find an appropriate diagnosis.

Leg cramps, or Charley horses

Charley horses are transient episodes of pain that can last for several minutes. The muscle, usually the calf at the back of the lower leg, tightens and goes into spasm.

Cramps are more common at night and in older people. An estimated 1 in 3 people aged over 60 years experience night cramps, and 40 percent experience over 3 attacks per week.


PAD can cause pain in the leg due to poor circulation. Without treatment, it can be fatal. The key symptom is intermittent claudication.

Intermittent claudication causes the blood supply to the leg muscles to become restricted. The resulting lack of oxygen and nutrients causes pain.

Claudication involves:

  • a cramp-like muscle pain during exercise or exertion
  • pain in the buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet
  • pain when walking or climbing stairs

The cramps consistently occur after the same walking distances, and they often ease on resting.


Share on PinterestDVT causes one type of leg pain and can become a blood clot on the lung if not quickly treated.

DVT refers to a blood clot in the deep veins of the leg. It can emerge after spending a long time sitting down, for example, on a long-distance flight.

Symptoms include swelling and a hot, painful sensation on one side of the leg. This may only occur when walking or standing up.

The clot may dissolve on its own, but if the person experiences dizziness and sudden shortness of breath, or if they cough up blood, emergency attention is needed.

These could be signs that DVT has developed into a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung.

Vascular problems can be serious. Both PAD and DVT can present without symptoms. People whose lifestyle or medical history leaves them prone to vascular problems in the leg should be aware of possible symptoms.

Shin splints

Engaging in intense exertion during sports can lead to different types of injury.

Jogging and running can create repetitive impact forces that overload muscles and tendons. Shin splints produce severe, localized tenderness in the muscles, and sometimes bone pain commonly felt around the shin bone.

The shin pain cannot be explained by an obvious cause such as a fracture.

Fractures and stress fractures

Heavy pressure, for example, from a fall, can lead to fractures. Some fractures are easily and immediately visible, with severe bruising, swelling, and deformation. These normally receive urgent medical attention.

Stress fractures are small fractures that can result from repetitive stresses sustained during sports, often when the intensity of activity increases too quickly.

There is no single injury, and the fractures are small. The pain may start at an earlier stage during each exercise session, and eventually become present all the time.

Popliteus tendinitis

This produces knee pain during downhill running. It is caused by inflammation of the popliteus tendon, which is important for knee stability.

Hamstring strain

Acute trauma can lead to sprains and strains. A sprain refers to a stretching or tearing. A strain is an injury to the muscles or tendons.

Often associated with running, a hamstring strain can lead to acute pain in the rear of the thigh muscle, usually due to a partial tear.

Sprains and strains usually develop because of inadequate flexibility training, overstretching, or not warming up before an activity. Continuing to exercise while injured increases the risk.

Compartment syndrome

When an injury to the leg results in swelling, dangerous levels of pressure in the muscles can lead to acute or chronic compartment syndrome.

This could be due to a fracture or severe bruising.

The swelling causes pressure to build up until the blood supply to muscle tissue is cut off, depleting the muscles of oxygen and nourishment. The pain may be unexpectedly severe, considering the injury.

In severe cases, early pain may be followed by numbness and paralysis. Permanent muscle damage can result.

Sciatic nerve pain

Sciatica happens when pressure is put on a nerve, often in the spine, leading to pains that run down the leg from the hip to the foot.

It can happen when a nerve is “pinched” in a muscle spasm or by a herniated disk.

Long-term effects include strain on other parts of the body as the gait changes to compensate for the pain.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can lead to pain and swelling in the legs.

What causes heavy aching legs?

Heavy legs can be a sign of a number of conditions or disorders in the body.

Varicose veins

Share on PinterestWhen legs feel weighed down or aching, it may be due to an underlying condition, such as varicose veins.

Varicose veins are veins that look more apparent, larger, and knotty than surrounding veins.

As blood circulation gets worse, blood starts to pool in the legs due to factors such as the effects of gravity and the veins losing their elasticity.

Varicose veins can appear for a number of reasons, including:

  • obesity
  • aging
  • hormonal imbalances, such as those during perimenopause and pregnancy
  • people whose occupations require them to stand or sit
  • lack of physical activity in general

Varicose veins may lead to issues such as blood clots, which in turn cause swelling and pain. They may also influence skin sores, which could be difficult to heal.


Feeling a bit of tiredness in the legs for a few days after a particularly intense workout is normal. However, when athletes train themselves to push past their limits on a regular basis, they risk overtraining their muscles.

Overtrained muscles do not have time to repair themselves before people use them again. The result is often sluggish, weak, or heavy muscles. Athletes, such as cyclists and runners, may complain of heavy legs if they have been pushing themselves too hard.

Nervousness and restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome often causes an uncontrollable feeling in the legs that is jittery, shaky, or numb.

The temporary remedy is often as simple as moving them. Until the legs move, they may have a heavy feeling to them.

Many people will shake their legs or tap their feet to try and relieve the symptoms, which is where the syndrome gets its name.

Chronic venous insufficiency

Heavy legs may also be a sign of chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).

The pressure of gravity makes the heart work harder to pump blood back up to the heart from the feet and legs. The feet and legs have a series of one-way valves designed to keep blood from falling back down.

The veins and valves in a person with CVI become weak, which can often cause complaints such as tired, heavy legs, swelling, and spider veins.

CVI may be more common in people who stand for long periods of time, as standing can put tremendous strain on the veins in the lower legs and feet.

A few risk factors play into CVI, including:

  • poor nutrition
  • extra weight
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • lack of exercise
  • pregnancy
  • aging

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a type of cardiovascular disease that can affect the veins and arteries. Symptoms start to appear when fat builds up in the walls of the arteries, which makes it difficult for blood to pass through.

PAD is common in the legs, where it can partially cut off circulation to the feet and legs and cause them to ache, feel heavy, or have cramps.

Risk factors for PAD include things like high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes.

Heavy legs and obesity

Share on PinterestBeing overweight or obese may place extra strain on the legs, causing them to feel heavy or to ache.

Being overweight or obese may influence a number of other disorders that cause heavy legs, but the heavy legs may also be an issue directly linked to the extra weight.

Carrying extra weight can put more pressure on the joints, muscles, and tendons in the leg, especially if the person stands for long periods throughout the day.

An overweight person with a sedentary lifestyle may also have circulation problems that could worsen feelings of heaviness in the legs.

Obesity is a risk factor for some of the other disorders that cause heavy legs. Losing weight may help reduce symptoms or improve the general health.

Heavy legs during pregnancy

Heavy legs are commonly experienced during pregnancy. This may be due to a combination of the extra weight the legs have to carry around and the hormonal changes a woman goes through while pregnant. Changing hormone levels may increase water retention while also reducing elasticity in the veins.

Home remedies may help relieve symptoms. For the most part, these symptoms will fade after pregnancy.

People who should pay close attention to heavy legs include pregnant women who:

  • are overweight
  • lead a sedentary lifestyle
  • have a family history of venous issues
  • work strenuously while pregnant

Does Your Foot Pain Signal a Serious Condition?

PAD can cause the muscles in your calves and other parts of your legs to cramp while you’re moving around. The condition can also lead to foot pain and poorly healed foot wounds, Dr. Brezinski says. While the foot and leg-related symptoms of PAD are usually quite obvious, the disease is also associated with hidden damage to the heart and brain — which places those with PAD at much higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Not surprisingly, other risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, also increase your risk of PAD.

Medications can be used to manage PAD, but changes in diet and lifestyle (like quitting smoking) are very important as well.

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Gout

According to the Arthritis Foundation, 46 million Americans have arthritis or other chronic problems affecting their joints. For patients with rheumatoid arthritis — which affects 1.3 million Americans — about 90 percent will develop symptoms in the foot and ankle.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) develops when the body’s natural defense system against disease, the immune system, mistakenly attacks your joints, causing them to become painful and swollen. The symptoms of RA may include severe foot pain. When the condition affects your feet, pain usually begins in your toes and later spreads to the rest of your feet and ankles. The joint damage caused by RA can eventually change the shape of your toes and feet. In some people, foot symptoms are the first hint that they even have RA. Once diagnosed, RA can often be treated effectively with medications, exercise and, in some cases, surgery.

Another type of arthritis that is known for causing foot pain is gout. This condition occurs when a substance called uric acid accumulates in your body. Deposits of uric acid collect in the joints — particularly in your big toes — and can cause intense, episodic pain. Uric acid can also lead to kidney stones if too much of it builds up in the kidneys.

Doctors can treat gout with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other medications including steroids. Getting regular exercise, drinking lots of water, avoiding certain medications, and staying at a healthy weight can help prevent gout attacks, too.

Foot Pain Health Problems: Diabetes

Roughly 24 million Americans have diabetes — and 6 million of them don’t even know it yet. If you have this health problem, the glucose or blood sugar that your body normally uses as fuel can build up in your blood. This excess sugar can damage nerves and blood vessels in the feet — eventually leading to decreased sensation and compromised blood flow.

As a result, symptoms of high blood sugar include numbness or tingling in your feet as well as severe foot infections. Diabetes is a major cause of foot problems in the United States and can lead to the surgical removal of a toe or even more of your foot or lower leg.

Fortunately, diabetes and its associated foot complications can be managed with medication and regular foot exams by your doctor. It is also important for diabetics to quit smoking, wear supportive shoes, and avoid being barefoot to prevent unnecessary foot trauma.

After a long day of standing at work, it’s common to experience some foot discomfort, but if you notice severe foot pain that seems out of proportion to your physical activity, tell your doctor. What starts as a minor foot problem could indicate a more serious medical condition.


What is metatarsalgia?

Metatarsalgia refers to pain and inflammation in the ball of the foot. This is the area between the arches and toes on the bottom of the foot. Metatarsalgia centers under the five bones at the bases of the toes, the metatarsals.

The pain of metatarsalgia can be caused by a number of conditions and can have varied treatments.

Who gets metatarsalgia?

Anyone can get metatarsalgia, although runners and others who take part in high impact sports or spend more time on their forefoot have the condition more frequently than others.

People with high arches also have metatarsalgia more than others. High arches put extra pressure on the metatarsals and heels. People with a second toe longer than their big toe may also experience metatarsalgia more frequently.

People with foot deformities such as hammertoes and bunions may also experience more metatarsalgia.

What causes metatarsalgia?

Not all of the causes of metatarsalgia are known. In addition to being a frequent runner, wearing ill-fitting shoes or high heels can cause metatarsalgia.

Excess weight can also contribute to metatarsalgia.

Having rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or gout can also contribute to metatarsalgia.

What are the symptoms of metatarsalgia?

The main symptom of metatarsalgia is pain in the metatarsal area under the ball of the foot. Metatarsalgia may or may not be accompanied by bruising and swelling or inflammation. Symptoms can come on quickly or develop over time. They include:

  • Pain in the ball of the foot: this can be sharp, aching or burning. The pain may get worse when you stand, run or walk.
  • Numbness or tingling in your toes
  • The feeling of a pebble in your shoe

If you have any of these ongoing symptoms, you should see your doctor. Untreated metatarsalgia can lead to hammertoes, can cause you to limp and cause pain in other parts of the body, including the lower back and hip when you compensate and begin to walk abnormally.

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What causes the outside of your foot to hurt?

Share on PinterestLateral foot pain affects the outside of the ankle and foot.

Lateral foot pain can have many causes. Most of them arise from conditions that were left untreated. These could include:

  • ankle joint inflammation and scar tissue
  • arthritis
  • the presence of very fine cracks in the foot bones and in the ankle
  • tendon inflammation
  • stretched, torn, or pinched nerves (especially those passing through the ankle)

The following conditions lead to lateral foot pain:

Ankle sprain

An ankle sprain is a ligament injury in the foot, without dislocation or a fracture. This is one of the main causes of lateral foot pain, with 85 percent of ankle sprains leading to lateral foot pain.

Cuboid syndrome

Cuboid syndrome is a partial dislocation of one of the lateral foot bones known as the cuboid bone. This injury may occur due to excessive tension or too much weight on the bone.

This syndrome usually occurs when a person does too much sport and physical activity without allowing any recovery time between exercise sessions. Sometimes, wearing tight shoes can also cause cuboid syndrome.

Cuboid syndrome is an uncommon cause of lateral foot pain that frequently goes undiagnosed. It can cause long-term symptoms, such as pain, weakness, and tenderness.


Share on PinterestBunions may cause lateral foot pain.

Bunions are a bone defect that makes the big toe of the foot rotate inwards and point to the other toes. As a consequence, people put most of their body weight on the lateral side of the foot when walking or standing, which causes pain.

Bunions may be caused by genetic factors or poor footwear that squashes the toes. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the bunion and realign the toes.

Peroneal tendonitis

Peroneal tendonitis occurs as a result of repetitive tension of the peroneal tendons. These two tendons extend from the back of the calf, over the outer edge of the outer ankle and attach at different points on the lateral side of the foot.

This condition causes the peroneal tendons to swell or become inflamed, resulting in pain on the lateral side of the foot and the heel.

A person who runs excessively or places their foot abnormally may develop peroneal tendonitis. It may also occur after an ankle sprain.

Stress fractures

Stress fractures are small breaks in one of the outer foot bones (called metatarsals), due to repetitive sports and physical exercise. Symptoms of this injury may be mild initially but gradually worsen.

Calluses and corns

Corns and calluses develop on the lateral side of the foot. They often develop as a result of the body producing multiple skin layers to protect the foot from repetitive stress and friction. Although calluses are usually painless, corns can penetrate deeper into the skin and be painful.


Arthritis is a disease that causes lateral foot pain when it affects the foot joint. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of arthritis.

Tarsal coalition

Tarsal coalition is a congenital condition, meaning that it is present at birth. Tarsal coalition occurs when the tarsal bones near the back of the foot do not connect properly. This unusual connection between the two bones often leads to stiffness and pain in the foot.

Tarsal coalition is a rare condition. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, about 1 in every 100 people have the condition.

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Normally, your toes sit nice and straight, but when you have a hammertoe, your toe is sitting almost like a claw, with a bend in the middle. “What’s happening is that when you’re walking, the muscles are firing longer and harder through the gait cycle, so the muscle is constantly contracting, causing your toes to pull up into a hammer-like position,” says Brenner. That causes one part of the bone to stick out above the others, and when it starts to run, causing friction, it can lead to a corn, or a more painful, smaller callous.

“If you don’t treat it properly with medicine, it can ulcerate and open up,” she says. If that happens, you should see a doctor ASAP; for more serious cases of hammertoe, a doctor may recommend surgery to address the cause.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, and it can affect you all over—right down to your feet. “A side effect of rheumatoid arthritis is that your bones start to deviate, so they’re not sitting straight, they’re starting to angulate,” says Brenner. Your toe joints will feel tender or swollen and stiff, and you can actually develop rheumatoid nodules, “which are growths that occur on the joint, like a ball coming out of the joint, and are very painful,” says Brenner.

If you suspect rheumatoid arthritis as the cause of your foot pain or if you have a family history of RA, you should go straight to a rheumatologist.

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Gout is another form of arthritis. “It could be hereditary, or that your kidneys aren’t functioning correctly and you don’t have a certain enzyme to break down the uric acids found in meats, heavy sauces, and seafoods,” says Brenner. “What happens is those urate crystals harden and go to the coldest part of the body—typically the big toe joint.” Your joint will look red, feel hot, and swell, and be super sensitive to touch.

Since those things can also be signs of an infection, you should see a doctor ASAP. A podiatrist can help with the flare-up in your foot, but seeing an internal medicine doctor could help get to the root of the problem.

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Tendinitis, or inflammation or irritation of a tendon, typically comes down to wear and tear, says Brenner. “It really comes from lack of support and doing exercise on hard surfaces,” she says. “You can get it from yoga, running, pretty much anything.” Tendinitis typically feels like a dull ache, and comes with mild swelling, most often immediately after the offending activity,

The best ways to get rid of it are rest and physical therapy, says Brenner, but for persistent pain lasting more than a few days, head to your doctor for more options.

A Strain or Sprain

When you’re active, it’s easy to write off a rolled ankle or other minor injuries. But those could actually be strains or sprains, which occur when you overstretch the ligaments or muscles and tendons, respectively, and you need time to recover from them. “When you stretch ligaments or tendons, it’s like stretching leather—they don’t just snap back like a rubber band; it takes them a long time,” Brenner says.

The best cure? “Good old R.I.C.E.: rest, ice, compression, and elevation,” she says. “You should start to feel better within a week or so.” Then you need to rebuild the strength of those tendons, muscles, and ligaments—physical therapy can be helpful here, but just take your time and ease back into your routine. “If you can’t push through something or your body won’t let you do something, you need to listen to your body,” she says.

Ashley Mateo Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women’s Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more.

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