Thigh pain can be caused by joint or muscle damage, problems with blood flow, nerve injuries or underlying medical conditions. Learn about 9 thigh pain causes.
Symptoms of thigh pain
You used to enjoy taking your dog for jogs around the neighborhood, but recently there's been a nagging crampy pain in your thighs that gets worse when you walk or run. Thigh pain symptoms can develop acutely or can be a chronic problem that worsens over time, and they can occur in different parts of the thigh, like the front, back, or side. Thigh pain can have a variety of causes ranging from acute injury to an underlying medical condition. No matter what the cause, it can be irritating and interfere with the ability to do activities that were previously enjoyed.
Common accompanying symptoms of thigh pain
If you're experiencing thigh pain it's also likely to experience:
- Pain that worsens with activity
- Pain that starts in the back and shoots down the thigh
- An urge to move the leg
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What causes thigh pain?
Thigh pain symptoms can have a variety of causes. There may be joint or muscle damage; problems with blood flow; nerve injuries; or underlying medical conditions.
Thigh pain may occur due to musculoskeletal injuries or abnormalities.
- Muscular: A strain or complete tear of one of the hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh can lead to pain and decreased strength.
- Hip joint: Abnormalities in the hip are often experienced as thigh pain symptoms. Hip problems that can cause referred pain to the thigh include damaged cartilage, fracture or destruction of the bone, and infections of the hip joint.
Blood flow problems
Issues with blood flow may result in thigh pain.
- Decreased blood supply: Partial blockage of one or more arteries can cause decreased blood flow to the legs, resulting in pain due to lack of oxygen delivery to the cells. The pain will be particularly severe when walking or otherwise exercising the legs.
- Blood clot: Complete blockage of a vein due to clotting is more common in the calf but can also occur in the thigh. In this case there will be swelling in addition to pain.
Injury to a nerve that supplies the leg may result in thigh pain.
- Nerves in the back: A structural abnormality in the back, such as an enlargement of one of the discs in the spine, can cause nerve pain that radiates down the leg into the thigh.
- Nerves in the thigh: Surgery or tight clothing can cause an injury to one of the nerves that travels down the thigh, resulting in pain, numbness, and tingling.
Underlying medical conditions
Certain medical conditions may result in thigh pain.
- Restless leg syndrome: A condition where leg pain occurs only at night or other times of rest and is accompanied by an urge to move the legs.
- Cramps: Involuntary and painful leg cramping, which may occur only at night, can affect the thighs.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
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
Deep vein thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in a vein deep in the body. Most deep vein clots occur in the lower leg or thigh.
Top Symptoms: fever, thigh pain, upper leg swelling, calf pain, butt pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
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 th..
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
Thigh nerve issue (meralgia paresthetica)
Meralgia paresthetica is a nerve condition that causes an area of skin over the upper outer thigh to feel numb, tingly, or painful. This is caused by compression of a nerve known as the lateral cutaneous nerve of the thigh as it passes underneath a tough fibrous ligament known as the inguinal ligament.
Top Symptoms: pain in the outside of the hip, pain in one thigh, thigh numbness, tingling upper leg, hip numbness
Symptoms that never occur with thigh nerve issue (meralgia paresthetica): new headache, swollen hip, swollen hips, swelling of one hip, leg swelling, weakness of both legs, leg weakness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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
An embolus is a blood clot that forms in the bloodstream, breaks loose, and is carried by the blood to become lodged elsewhere in the circulatory system. If this clot (embolus) blocks part of the bloodstream in the lungs (pulmonary system,) this condition is called pulmonary embolis..
The spine, or backbone, protects the spinal cord and allows people to stand and bend. Spinal stenosis causes narrowing in the spine. The narrowing puts pressure on nerves and the spinal cord and can cause pain.
Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that shoots to the butt, difficulty walking, thigh pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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
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Thigh pain treatments and relief
In most cases, thigh pain symptoms do not need to be urgently evaluated. However, there are a few thigh pain causes that can lead to serious complications.
When thigh pain is an emergency
Seek emergency treatment if:
- You are experiencing leg weakness, loss of control over urination or defecation, or numbness in your groin area: These signs indicate a serious problem with your spinal cord.
- You are unable to bear weight on the affected leg(s)
- Your pain started suddenly and is associated with a fever
- Your pain is associated with new onset of swelling
When to see a doctor for thigh pain
In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you should seek medical evaluation and treatment for your thigh pain symptoms. You may undergo a physical exam, imaging, and/or blood tests that will help diagnose the cause and guide treatment. Make an appointment with your medical provider if:
- You have chronic thigh pain that has become more severe over time
- The pain is accompanied by numbness and/or tingling
- The pain is particularly bad at night
- You were previously diagnosed with a chronic medical condition like liver or kidney disease
At-home treatments for thigh pain
For more mild cases of thigh pain, you can try the following remedies at home.
- Heat or ice: Heating or ice packs will improve many causes of thigh pain.
- RICE: If the pain started after an acute injury, try RICE treatment. This means resting and icing the muscle, as well as applying compression (such as with an ace bandage) and elevating the leg to prevent swelling.
- Pain medications: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help, particularly if the pain started after an injury. Do not take the medication for more than a week without seeing a medical provider.
- To address nightly pain: If the pain is worst at night, avoid substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Improving your sleep habits, such as by going to sleep at the same time every night and making sure the room is dark, may also help.
- Drinking plenty of water may help relieve crampy thigh pain
FAQs about thigh pain
Why do I have a burning sensation in my upper thigh?
A burning sensation in the upper thigh may be caused by a condition called meralgia paresthetica. In this condition, damage to a nerve that travels down the thigh (lateral femoral cutaneous nerve) causes burning, tingling, and numbness in the front and outer thigh. The nerve damage may occur due to tight clothing, prior surgery, or pregnancy, certain repetitive excercise, or it may occur without a clear cause.
What causes upper thigh pain when walking?
Upper thigh pain when walking may be caused by peripheral arterial disease, in which one or more arteries are partly blocked. Increased blood flow is required to supply your muscles when you are walking. If the arteries are partially blocked and there is not enough blood flow, the insufficient oxygen supply to the muscles can cause crampy thigh pain. Upper thigh pain when walking could also be caused by a narrowing of the spinal cord, called spinal stenosis.
Why do I have thigh pain at night?
Thigh pain at night may be caused by a condition called nocturnal leg cramps. Involuntary cramping of the legs can cause severe pain and difficulty sleeping. The calf muscles are usually involved, but the cramps can occur in the thigh as well. Nocturnal leg cramps can occur with no specific cause, but they can also be a complication of an underlying medical condition such as liver disease.
Can sciatica hurt in the front of the thigh?
Yes, sciatica can cause pain in the front of the thigh. Sciatica refers to the compression of a nerve as it exits the spinal cord, resulting in pain that may radiate from the back down the thigh. Depending on the specific nerve that is compressed, the pain can be located in the front, side, or back of the thigh.
Why do my legs ache when I lay down?
Aching in the legs when lying down may be caused by restless legs syndrome. This condition is characterized by leg discomfort and the urge to move the legs when lying down at night. Leg achiness when lying down could also be caused by insufficient blood flow to the legs due to partial artery blockage (peripheral arterial disease). This may be the cause if dangling your legs over the edge of the bed relieves your discomfort.
Questions your doctor may ask about 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.
I am 54 year old female who had ACL repair of the right knee last year. It was injured during kickboxing. I am hyper mobile. I have exercised consistently for a number of years. It was an easy surgery without need for muscle removal and there was no meniscus tear.. Dr said the tendon was perfect. It was just pulled off the bone. Fast forward to this year... I had been jogging progressively over the last 6 months and was up to 4 miles 5 days a week. I was laying floor and dislocated a rib. (It is mostly healed now.) My trouble is now I can't jog without pain in the inner and outer right thigh. I have no knee pain. My ribs really don't hurt. I just want to jog. It has been almost 2 weeks and I can't jog without this pain stopping me.
- Muscle strains in the thigh. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated March 2014. OrthoInfo Link.
- Arthritis and diseases that affect the hip. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link.
- Signs and symptoms of blood clots. National Blood Clot Alliance. NBCA Link.
- Jasmin L. Femoral nerve dysfunction. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated December 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Meralgia paresthetica information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated June 20, 2018. NINDS Link.
- Peripheral artery disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NHLBI Link.
- Sciatica. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link.