Definition and Overview
Leg problems are conditions that affect any part of the leg including the bones, tendons, joints, and connective tissues.
The legs belong to the lower extremity of the body. They are responsible for different types of motion such as standing up, sitting down, running, climbing, etc. They also support the rest of the upper body.
The legs are composed of two major sections: upper and lower. The upper leg is connected to the hip in a ball-and-socket type. There is only one bone that comprises the upper leg, and it is called femur, the largest bone in the body. The lower leg, meanwhile, begins from the knee to the ankle, and is composed of two bones, fibula and tibia. The tibia is the one that makes up the knee together with the femur’s base. The fibula starts from the knee joint and is connected to the tibia.
Aside from bones and joints, the legs are also composed of muscles such as hamstrings and quadriceps that work along with the other parts to provide the body lower flexibility. The toes are made up of more than 30 joints and 20 bones. Along the legs are also hundreds of blood vessels such as veins.
Common leg problems affect the structure, such as the bones, joints, and muscles, as well as the veins and other blood vessels.
Although some of these issues can go away on their own, a number may require treatment including surgery to reduce the risks, manage the pain, or prevent further complications.
Causes of Condition
Congenital – Most leg problems that affect children are congenital. Good examples include clubbed foot (where the foot appears to be facing inward or toward the ankle) and bow legs, which is characterized by a prominent space in between the legs. Although bow legs can gradually straighten as the child grows up, sometimes they do not. Both can cause difficulty in walking.
Extra weight – Obesity can cause a serious problem in the legs over time. As mentioned, the legs support the upper body weight. If it becomes too much, the structures such as the tendons and bones can shift or become damaged. It can also lead to foot pain. Obesity also increases the risk of diabetes, which can also affect the legs. Diabetes can result to nerve damage to the extremities especially the lower legs. When these nerves are damaged, there is a risk of developing gangrene or localized death of tissues, which may result in amputation. People with diabetes may also develop arterial peripheral disease, another leg condition caused by the accumulation of plaque deposits in the arteries.
Injuries – Different injuries can lead to fractures, lacerations, and sprains on the legs. Depending on the severity, they may be treated as an emergency and may require surgery.
Aging – Aging is a risk factor. As a person ages, the bones can become more brittle and more susceptible to breakage.
Immobility – The lack of movements including living a sedentary lifestyle may cause the development of deep vein thrombosis, which may result in embolism, where the clot travels into the bloodstream and attaches itself to another organ like the lungs or the heart.
Medications – Certain medications can affect the sensation of the legs and other leg problems like edema (water retention).
Underlying diseases – Many diseases have a direct impact on the legs. These include rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes the inflammation or swelling of the joints, including those of the knee. Hyperuricemia is the excessive buildup of uric acid. Uric acid can form crystal deposits that can lodge themselves in the knee, causing pain and difficulty in walking.
- Feeling of having tired and heavy legs
- Swollen legs
- Presence of varicose and spider veins
- Leg cramps
- Leg and joint pain
- Difficulty in walking or moving the legs
- Tingling sensation in the legs
- Edema (water retention)
- Physical deformity of the legs
- Loss of sensation on the legs
- Leg stiffness
- Bone protruding from the skin
- Leg pain that gets worse over time
Who to See and Treatments Available
Many types of doctors can help treat or diagnose leg problems. Primary care physicians, pediatricians, internists, and family doctors can already do the job. However, certain conditions may require specialists such as an orthopedic surgeon (for injuries and deformities) and oncologist (if the leg problem is caused by cancer).
Not all types of leg problems need medical attention. For example, restless leg syndrome, which may be caused by prolonged sitting, may be corrected by increasing physical activity. Leg cramps can be prevented by changing leg positions or drinking more water.
Consider seeing a doctor if:
- The pain is severe, radiating, or recurrent
- The problem is caused by an injury such as a fracture
- The pain reduces quality of life like decreased mobility
- The condition is accompanied by other body changes such as unexplained weight loss or growth of tumor
- The wound is not healing
- Simple treatments or remedies are not working
To diagnose leg problems, doctors typically perform a physical exam to check if there is any deformity, swelling, inflammation, or tenderness. The doctor may also check for sensation and reflexes. If necessary, the patient undergoes an imaging exam, which provides a more detailed report on the condition of the legs.
As for treatments, the doctor may:
- Encourage watchful waiting, especially if the symptoms are vague or the condition is deemed not serious
- Conduct surgery including emergency, amputation, and repair of fractures and congenital deformities
- Prescribe medications such as blood thinners or pain relievers
- Treat the underlying condition
- Recommend physical therapy (rehabilitation)
Leg problems may also be prevented or alleviated with:
- Healthier lifestyle consisting of proper diet and exercise
- Reduced prolonged sitting and standing
- Control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol
- Wearing of compression stockings
- Better weight management
- Caution in doing physical activities such as sports
McGee S. Stance and gait. In: McGee S. Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 6.
Thompson PD Nutt JG. Gait disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 22.