Dull, Achy Thigh Pain
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Are you experiencing a dull ache in your thigh? The thigh contains one major bone and many muscles, nerves, and arteries, so aching thighs may signify an underlying condition that needs medical attention. Read below to learn why you may be experiencing thigh muscle pain and possible remedies.
Symptoms of dull, aching thigh pain
The thigh is a major weight-bearing component of the body, and injury or pain in this area can make day-to-day activities difficult to perform. The thigh is necessary for flexion and extension of the knee, flexion, and extension of the hips, and generation of power for movements like jumping and running.
Common accompanying symptoms of dull, achy thigh pain
Dull, achy pain in the thigh may signify an underlying condition that needs medical attention. In addition to the pain you may experience the following symptoms:
- Difficulty moving, especially after rest
- Symptoms at rest
- Limping or change in gait
Timing of symptoms
It is important to pay close attention to your thigh pain and take note of the timing and pattern of your symptoms:
- Recurring: Have you experienced such symptoms before?
- Frequency: Does the pain and any associated symptoms occur all the time (chronic) or sometimes (acute or occasionally)?
- Relief or pain: Are there certain activities or positions that make the pain worse? Anything that makes the pain better?
- Severity: Does the quality of the pain (dull) change (sharp, burning, tingling, etc.)?
If you have thigh pain and any associated symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider in order to get the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
What causes dull, achy thigh pain?
The thigh contains one major bone and many muscles, nerves, and arteries; damage, disruption or injury to any of its components can result in dully, achy thigh pain.
The bone of the thigh is called the femur. The femur is the longest and strongest bone in the body. The main muscles of the thigh include:
- Quadriceps: A set of four muscles in the front of the thigh important in straightening (extending) the leg
- Hamstrings: A set of three muscles in the back of the thigh important in bending (flexing) the leg.
- Adductors: Muscles important for pulling the legs together.
The main nerves of the thigh include:
- Femoral nerve: Innervates the anterior (front) part of the thigh.
- Sciatic nerve: Innervates the posterior (back) part of the thigh.
- Obturator nerve: Innervates the medial (middle) part of the thigh.
The femoral artery and vein are the main blood vessels of the thigh and provide blood to the muscles and tissues of the thigh and other parts of the leg. Many conditions can affect these different components to produce dull, achy pain. See your medical provider in order to get the appropriate diagnosis.
Causes of dull, achy thigh pain related to trauma may include the following.
- Fracture: A fracture is the cracking or breaking of a bone. Fractures change the shape of the bone and most often occur when there is significant force or impact on the bone. The femur is a difficult bone to fracture given its strength, so high force/impact accidents are necessary for this type of injury. Dull, achy pain may be experienced in the aftermath of the injury during physical therapy and rehabilitation.
- Bruise: A bruise (or contusion) occurs when the small blood vessels in an area of the body are damaged by trauma. This causes blood to seep into the surrounding tissues, causing the red to blue-black color often associated with bruises.Bruises can result in dull, achy pain that can last for multiple days until the bruise resolves. A bruise will stay visible until the blood is either absorbed by the surrounding tissue or cleared by the immune system.
- Repetitive injury: Muscles and bones that are over-worked without proper conditioning and stretching can become tight and tense resulting in pain with movement. For example, stress fractures are small cracks in a bone that can occur from activities such as repetitive jumping or long-distance running.
A blood clot that develops or travels to the femoral vein (also referred to as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT)) can result in dull, achy thigh pain in addition to associated symptoms. Blood clots form when blood components called platelets thicken to form a gel-like mass. The primary function of this process is to plug an injured blood vessel (for example after a cut) in order to stop bleeding. However, sometimes blood clots form inside the arteries and veins without good reason and do not properly dissolve. These can be dangerous and cause serious harm as they can cut off blood flow to the body part the muscle or vein supplies or travel to other parts of the body such as the lungs (pulmonary embolism or PE).
In general, any cancer is the result of cells dividing and growing uncontrollably. Sometimes there is a genetic mutation in DNA or a specific protein or failure in an important checkpoint that results in this unchecked growth. These abnormal cells can accumulate to form a lump that can grow and invade throughout the body. A cancerous process in the thigh can present as a dull, achy pain that interferes with daily activity.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome
Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is also called runner's knee, jumper's knee, anterior knee pain, chondromalacia patella, and patellofemoral joint syndrome.
Overuse through training for sports is a common cause, especially if there is a misalignment in the knee joint or a previous knee injury. This wears away the cartilage beneath the kneecap and causes pain on exercising.
It is most common in females and in young adults who are active in sports, but can affect anyone.
Symptoms include dull pain at the front of the knee and around the kneecap (patella) while running, squatting, or climbing stairs, or after prolonged sitting with knees bent.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and through x-rays, CT scan, and/or MRI.
Treatment most often involves rest; over-the-counter pain relievers; low-impact exercise such as swimming or bicycling; physical therapy to strengthen and stabilize the knee; and orthotics (shoe inserts) to help correct a misaligned stride.
Surgery is needed only for severe cases, and is done through arthroscopy to remove any fragments of damaged cartilage.
Top Symptoms: knee pain, pain in one knee, knee pain that gets worse when going up stairs, dull, achy knee pain, knee pain that gets worse when squatting
Symptoms that always occur with patellofemoral pain syndrome: knee pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Femoral stress fracture
Femoral stress fracture means there is a break in the femur, or thighbone. The femur is the largest and strongest bone in the body and is important for bearing weight. A femoral stress fracture usually occurs in the top of the bone where it connects to the pelvis.
Stress fractures happen from overuse and/or from weakness in the bone from disease, rather than from trauma. Those in heavy physical training, such as athletes and military trainees, are vulnerable to femoral stress fracture. But anyone suffering from malnutrition or osteoporosis is vulnerable to a stress fracture, even with ordinary activities of daily living.
Symptoms include pain deep in the thigh or groin, especially during exercise. The pain may have started gradually instead of being sudden, as with a traumatic injury. The condition might be thought to be a simple strain.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, with simple tests such as hopping on the painful leg, and imaging.
Treatment involves rest; improved nutrition; study of proper training and striding techniques; and sometimes surgery.
Top Symptoms: dull, achy hip pain, pain in one thigh, thigh pain, spontaneous hip pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises.
Top Symptoms: pain in one thigh, thigh pain from an injury, upper leg injury, thigh bruise, swelling of one thigh
Symptoms that always occur with thigh bruise: upper leg injury, thigh pain from an injury
Acute compartment syndrome describes the damage done to certain muscle groups of the arms or legs after a traumatic injury.
All of the long muscles are bundled into sections – "compartments" – by the white sheets of strong, tough connective tissue called fascia. If something interferes with circulation so that blood flow is trapped within the compartment, pressure rises because the fascia cannot stretch. This causes serious damage to the muscles and other tissues within the compartment.
Acute compartment syndrome is caused by a broken bone; a crush injury; burns, due to scarred and tightened skin; and bandages or casts applied before an injury has stopped swelling.
Symptoms can rapidly intensify. They include severe pain and tightness in the muscle; tingling or burning sensation; and sometimes numbness and weakness.
Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency which can result in loss of the limb. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination.
Treatment involves hospitalization for emergency surgery and, in some cases, skin graft.
Top Symptoms: arm numbness, hand numbness, foot numbness, pain in one leg, thigh numbness
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Repetitive strain injury of the quadriceps
Repetitive strain injury of the upper leg is caused by consistent repetitive use.
Top Symptoms: upper leg numbness, thigh weakness, thigh pain from overuse
Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the quadriceps: thigh pain from overuse
Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the quadriceps: upper leg injury, severe upper leg pain
Thigh bone infection (osteomyelitis)
Osteomyelitis of the thigh is a bacterial or fungal infection of the thigh bone, typically caused by Staph Aureus (40-50% of the time). It is difficult to diagnose as the infection can come from a break in the skin at the area or anywhere else in the body that spreads by blood.
Top Symptoms: moderate fever, constant upper leg pain, spontaneous thigh pain, painful surgical site, warm red upper leg swelling
Symptoms that always occur with thigh bone infection (osteomyelitis): spontaneous thigh pain, constant upper leg pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
At-home & alternative treatments for aching thighs
At-home treatments for dull, achy thigh pain
Sometimes, you can help your symptoms of dull, achy pain with simple, at-home remedies — especially if your symptoms are caused by a bruise or overuse from repetitive injury. Try the following tips and suggestions below:
- Use heat: Apply a heating pad or warm compress to the affected area to facilitate relaxation.
- Stretch: Use stretching techniques to help relax your tense muscle, especially after exercise.
- Alternative therapies: Try therapies such as massage, yoga and sometimes acupuncture to facilitate relaxation of the muscles.
When to see a doctor for dull, achy thigh pain
If home treatment and remedies do not help your symptoms, make an appointment with your physician. Your treatment plan will depend on the specific cause and your doctor will work with you in order to properly address the underlying reason for your muscle tension. Depending on the cause your physician may suggest medical treatment that involves surgery, medications, physical therapy or a combination of all three.
When dull, achy thigh pain is an emergency
Emergency attention is required if you experience:
- Intense pain, more than would be expected from the injury
- Paleness of the thigh
- Paresthesia of the thigh (numbness or tingling)
These may be signs of a limb-threatening condition known as compartment syndrome, where increased pressure in a muscle compartment can lead to muscle and nerve damage and severely reduced blood flow.
FAQs about dull, achy thigh pain
Will the dull, achy pain in my thigh affect my gait?
The dull, achy pain in your thigh should not affect your gait or ability to walk significantly. It may be more painful to walk depending on the cause; however, your ability to move one foot in front of the other should not be affected. If you are experiencing problems with your gait, see your healthcare provider promptly, this could signal a different underlying condition.
Is dull, achy pain in one thigh life-threatening?
Usually, dull, achy pain in one thigh is not life-threatening. There are life- and/or limb-threatening conditions such as compartment syndrome a situation in which increased pressure within a confined space can lead to the inadequate blood supply to an organ that can also present as dull pain. Usually, these conditions are associated with severe trauma and symptoms such as paralysis, lack of pulse and changes in the color of the extremity.
Will the dull, achy pain spread from my thigh to other parts of my lower body?
Depending on the cause, your pain may spread to other components of the leg such as the knee, especially in situations of overuse or repetitive injury.
How long will the dull, achy pain last?
The duration of your symptoms will depend on the specific cause. For example, dull, achy pain associated with traumatic injuries are usually the result of localized swelling that can resolve, especially with proper treatment. On the other hand, dull pain due to more chronic causes such as overuse or bruising may take longer to heal.
Is a blood clot in the thigh life-threatening?
A blood clot in the thigh can be life-threatening if a life-threatening pulmonary embolism develops. A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood vessel in your lung becomes blocked by a blood clot that travels to your lung from another part of your body. The leg and thigh are very common areas for the blood clot to travel from.
Questions your doctor may ask about dull, achy thigh pain
- Do you run for exercise or sport?
- What is your body mass?
- Do your symptoms get worse when you exercise?
- Do you have any idea what may have caused your thigh pain?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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