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Limping Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Understand your limping symptoms with Buoy, including 10 causes and common questions concerning your limping.

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Limping symptoms

Walking is a common activity that is much more complex than some of us realize. It involves all levels of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that supply the muscles in the body, as well as the musculoskeletal system. While limping can simply be the avoidance of bearing weight on an injured leg or foot, it can also be a sign of many complex neurological conditions. If limping is due to injury or pain, it can likely be treated with rest, ice, crutches, or physical therapy. If limping is due to a neurologic condition, it will likely require evaluation by a doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment or therapy.

Common accompanying symptoms of limping

If you're experiencing limping, it's also likely to experience:

Limping causes

The most common cause of limping in an otherwise healthy individual is injury or pain to the foot, leg, or hip. There are many acute and chronic causes of hip and leg pain. Limping allows the individual to avoid bearing weight on the painful limb. However, since walking involves all levels of the nervous system, a limp can also be a sign of injury to the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves. As people age, it is more common to develop a limp due to a neurologic disorder. Additionally, some medical problems like heart and lung disease can change the way people walk, resulting in a limp.

Orthopedic conditions

Limping may be the result of orthopedic conditions, such as the following.

  • Injury: Pain or injury to the foot or leg can cause someone to limp. To avoid pain, weight is placed on the affected foot or leg for as short a time as possible, resulting in a limp. Trauma or overuse injuries are common causes of foot and leg pain.
  • Hip problems: In patients with hip pain, the upper body is typically shifted towards the affected side unconsciously to reduce forces exerted on the hip. This can cause a limp. Acute or chronic injury to the hip join or the bones and muscles surrounding the hip joint can result in a limp.
  • Deformity: Occasionally people are born with muscular or skeletal deformities that result in a limp. A common cause of genetic limp is having one leg that is significantly shorter than the other.

Neuromuscular disorders

Limping may be the result of neuromuscular disorders, such as the following.

  • Genetic conditions: Muscular dystrophies and other inherited disorders can cause weakness to muscles in the hips and legs, resulting in a limp.
  • Spinal cord compression: Compression to the spinal cord from injury or age-related degenerative disease can lead to weakness in the muscles of the legs and feet, resulting in a limp.
  • Inflammation: Infectious and inflammatory conditions can affect the muscles in the legs, leading to weakness and a possible limp.

Other causes

Other various causes of limping include the following.

  • Neurologic conditions: It is particularly common for neurologic conditions to be the cause of limping in elderly individuals. A new limp in an elderly individual warrants an evaluation by a doctor.
  • Psychological disorders: Occasionally, limping or changes in walking can be associated with psychological disorders.
  • Heart and lung disorders: It is possible that disease to the cardiorespiratory system (heart and lungs) could affect the way people walk, leading to a limp.
  • Medications: It is possible that medication side effects could affect muscles or nerves and cause a limp.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Limping quiz

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At-home treatments for limping

You may be able to address your limping symptoms at home with the following methods.

  • Rest: If an acute or overuse injury is the cause of a limp, resting the injured foot or leg for several days may help.
  • Ice: If an acute or overuse injury is the cause of a limp, icing the injury may reduce swelling.
  • Pain medication: If injury and pain is the suspected cause of a limp, over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other NSAIDs may help.

Medical treatments for limping

If your limping worsens or persists, you should see your doctor. Depending on the diagnosis, he or she may recommend the following.

  • Crutches: Crutches can help in the event of an acute injury to reduce weight on the injured foot or leg.
  • Physical therapy: A person may benefit from physical therapy if orthopedic injury or muscular weakness is the cause of a limp.
  • Neurologic assessment: A doctor may do a full neurologic assessment to determine the cause of a limp, particularly if they suspect the cause is in the brain, spinal cord, or nerves. A neurologic assessment generally includes testing strength, sensation, cognitive ability, and ability to walk, among other things.
  • Genetic testing: If a doctor suspects that an inherited condition may be the cause of a limp, they may order genetic testing.
  • Imaging: If a doctor suspects a neurologic condition may be the cause of a limp, they may order a CT scan or an MRI of the brain and/or spinal cord.

Posterior tibialis tendinopathy

Posterior tibialis tendinopathy

The posterior tibialis tendon attaches the calf muscle to the bones on the underside of the foot. It provides stability and arch support. If this tendon is damaged, the result may be a flat, unstable foot.

Posterior tibialis tendinopathy is most often a sports injury, where the tendon becomes inflamed or torn through overuse or high impact.

Symptoms include pain down the ankle and into the foot, sometimes with swelling. The pain becomes worse with any activity, even standing or walking. When standing, the patient's arch will be collapsed and flat and the front of the foot will point outward. The patient will be unable to stand on the injured foot and raise the heel.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

Treatment involves rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, orthotics (shoe pads,) braces, and sometimes steroid injections into the damaged tendon. Surgery can be tried, but tends to be complex and cannot always restore the tendon completely.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: swollen foot, pain in one foot, limping, pain in one ankle, spontaneous ankle pain

Symptoms that never occur with posterior tibialis tendinopathy: recent cutting accident

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Iliopsoas bursitis

Bursae are small fluid-filled sacks located around the body in strategic locations to provide a cushion and help reduce friction. Iliopsoas bursitis, or hip bursitis, is an inflammation of the hip bursa, causing pain at the point of the hip. The pain may extend to the outside of the thigh area.

You should visit your primary care physician. Treatment for this condition usually involves avoiding activities that worsen the symptoms, over-the-counter pain medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections. Surgery is rarely needed.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: thigh pain, groin pain, limping, snapping or clicking sensation of the hip, pain in the front of the hip

Symptoms that never occur with iliopsoas bursitis: fever, back pain, butt pain from an injury, pain in both hips, unmovable hip lump, hard hip lump, back pain that shoots down the leg

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Hip fracture

A hip fracture is a break in the upper quarter of the femur (thigh) bone. The extent of the break depends on the forces that are involved, which determines the type of surgery used for treatment.

You should seek immediate medical care at an urgent care clinic or ER as complications can become life-threatening. Treatment involves a combination of surgery, rehabilitation and medication.

Hip dislocation

Hip dislocation is relatively are and means that the ball-shaped head of the femur, or thighbone, has been forced out of its socket in the pelvic bone.

In some cases hip dislocation can result from congenital abnormality or as a complication of hip replacement surgery, but it is most often caused by trauma. Car accidents, sports injuries, or falls from a height are usually involved.

Symptoms include pain; inability to walk or move the leg; and the knee turned inward with the foot pointed towards the other leg.

This injury is considered a medical emergency. Because hip dislocations are usually caused by trauma, broken bones and soft tissue damage are likely to be present even if not immediately obvious. Avascular necrosis, or death of bone tissue in the hip joint due to a cutoff in the blood supply, is a possible complication.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and imaging, such as x-ray, CT scan, and/or MRI.

Treatment involves replacing the joint back in the socket and treating any other injuries, and may require surgery.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: hip pain, moderate hip pain, dull, achy hip pain, thigh pain, groin pain

Symptoms that always occur with hip dislocation: hip pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Hip bone damage (osteonecrosis)

Osteonecrosis of the hip is painful, progressive damage of the hip joint caused by a loss of blood flow.

Hip/groin/thigh pain that affects your hip motion should be assessed for osteonecrosis as soon as possible (ER), where imaging via MRI (and rarely, X-rays) might visualize the injury. Treatment depends on the severity of the disease, and includes everything from physical therapy to medications to improve bone strength to surgery to take out dead bone.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: severe or worsening pain in the hip or groin area, thigh pain, deep, throbbing hip pain, limping, pain in one knee

Symptoms that always occur with hip bone damage (osteonecrosis): severe or worsening pain in the hip or groin area

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Hip arthritis

Arthritis of the hip is inflammation of one or more of the joints in the hip. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis. Hip arthritis can make it hard to do many everyday activities, such as walking or climbing stairs. It is a major cause of lost work time and a serious disability for many people.

The goal of hip arthritis treatment is to relieve pain and maintain the function of the hip. Your doctor will be able to suggest a future course of action, such as pain medication, walking aids, or changing to more appropriate footwear.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hip pain, difficulty walking, pain in one hip, limping, groin pain

Symptoms that always occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: hip pain

Symptoms that never occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: severe hip pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Greater trochanteric pain syndrome

Greater trochanteric pain syndrome, also called trochanteric bursitis or GTPS, is an inflammation of the bursa of the greater trochanter.

Bursae are the small "cushions" between tendons, bones, and muscles. The greater trochanter is the larger of two bony knobs at the top of the thigh bone. Overuse, trauma, or infection can cause inflamed and irritated bursae around the greater trochanter.

Most susceptible are individuals with low back pain, osteoarthritis, and obesity.

Symptoms include chronic, persistent pain on the outside of the hip that radiates down the outside of the leg, sometimes to the knee.

The symptoms are similar to other conditions such as degenerative joint disease, and so a medical provider should be seen for an accurate diagnosis.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and observation of simple movements.

Treatment largely involves managing the symptoms through weight loss, physical therapy, and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. In some cases, corticosteroid injections into the hip work well to relieve pain, and surgery can sometimes help.

Foot sprain

The bones of the ankle and foot are held together by ligaments, which are bands of tough tissue. An ankle sprain is a type of injury where one or more of the ligaments is stretched too far, causing tiny fibers in the ligaments to tear. In most cases, the ligament does not tear completely. A sprain is caused by the ligaments being stretched too far or tearing. This can happen when the foot rolls rolls, twists or turns too much.

Developmental dysplasia of the hip

Developmental dysplasia of the hip is a condition affecting infants and young children in which abnormal development of the hip joint causes it to become unstable and predisposed to dislocation. Developmental dysplasia can be caused by a breech position of the fetus before it is born, as well as female gender, family history, and swaddling the infant.

Symptoms primarily include hip instability and a limited range of motion, as well as possible leg asymmetry or an abnormal gait.

Treatments depend on the age of the infant, and may include observation, splints or harnesses, and closed or open reductions in which the hip is put back in a proper position.

You should visit your primary care physician who will coordinate care with a muscle and bone specialist (orthopedic surgery). This condition is treated with a special harness, as well as several types of surgical procedures.

Limping quiz

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Limping treatments and relief

Limping that is due to orthopedic pain or injury may be able to be treated at home with lifestyle modifications or over-the-counter medications. However, a limp that persists should be evaluated by a medical professional. If the cause is suspected to be orthopedic, they may suggest imaging, crutches, or physical therapy. If the cause is suspected to be neurologic, they may suggest further neurologic testing and/or imaging of the head and spinal cord.

When limping is an emergency

You should seek emergency treatment if:

FAQs about limping

Do "growing pains" cause limping?

Growing pains in children do not cause limping. In order for pain to be classified as growing pain, it needs to meet three criteria. Growing pain is present only at night; it is present in both legs; and by definition it does not cause a limp. There are multiple reasons as to why a child could be limping, including injury, infection, or genetic disorders. If a child has a limp, he or she should be evaluated by a doctor.

How do you get septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a bacterial infection in a joint. In most cases, bacteria from the bloodstream spreads to the joint causing septic arthritis. It is also possible to introduce bacteria into the joint from trauma or bites, during surgery to a joint, or from infections elsewhere in the body (e.g. bone, soft tissue) that spread into a joint. Septic arthritis is a serious condition and should be evaluated urgently by a physician.

What does it mean to go limp?

Going limp can refer to several different conditions. Going limp can refer to sudden loss of muscle tone, which can occur when someone faints or has an atonic seizure. There are many different causes of fainting, which should be evaluated by a doctor. Going limp can also refer to losing an erection. Male sexual dysfunction can occur for a variety of medical and non-medical reasons.

How do you correct limping when you walk?

Limping in adults can be due to a variety of reasons, including pain or trauma to the hip, leg, or foot, as well as a variety of neurologic conditions. A new limp, particularly in an older person, should be evaluated by a doctor. In some cases, crutches, canes, or other assistive devices can help correct a limp. In other cases, physical therapy to strengthen muscles can help in correcting a limp.

Can limping cause hip pain?

Any changes in the way you walk can put excess pressure or force on joints and cause pain [5]. However, hip pain can actually cause a limp as well. In patients with hip pain, the upper body is typically shifted towards the affected side unconsciously to reduce forces exerted on the hip. This can cause a limp. Acute or chronic injury to the hip joint or the bones and muscles surrounding the hip joint can result in a limp.

Questions your doctor may ask about limping

  • Have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Do your symptoms get worse when you exercise?
  • Can you stand on both legs?
  • Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Cavagna GA, Margaria R. Mechanics of Walking. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1966;21(1):271-278. American Physiology Society Link
  2. The Causes of Limp. Paediatric Musculoskeletal Matters International. pmm-international Link
  3. U.S. Agency for Health Care Policy and Research. Acute Low Back Pain Problems in Adults: Assessment and Treatment. Chirobase. Published 1994. Chirobase Link
  4. Herman MI. A Limping 6-Year Old. Radiology Cases in Pediatric Emergency Medicine. 4:16. University of Hawaii Link
  5. Harrington IJ, Harris WR. Can 'Favouring' One Leg Damage the Other? British Editorial Society of Bone and Joint Surgery. 1994;76-B:519-520. Bone and Joint Online Link
  6. Herman MJ, Martinek M. The Limping Child. Pediatrics in Review. 2015;36(5):184-195. NCBI Link
  7. Pipinos II. Mechanisms That Produce the Leg Dysfunction of Claudication (Leg Pain and Limping During Walking) and Treatment Strategies for the Care of Patients with Claudication. ClinicalTrials.gov. Updated September 26, 2017. ClinicalTrials.gov Link
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  10. When to Go to the ER. United Regional Physician Group. UR Physician Group Link
  11. Cauda Equina Syndrome. UW Medicine. UW Medicine Link