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Upper Leg Pain: Symptoms & Causes

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Last updated April 2, 2024

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Upper leg pain can be caused by a variety of conditions, including trauma, systemic disease, or inflammatory conditions. Read more below to learn about upper leg pain, including causes, possible treatments, and more.

10 most common cause(s)

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Deep Vein Thrombosis
Spinal Stenosis
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
Trochanteric Pain
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Mild to Moderate Hip Arthritis
Femoral Stress Fracture
Iliotibial Band Syndrome
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Thigh nerve issue (meralgia paresthetica)
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Repetitive strain injury of the quadriceps
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Repetitive strain injury of the hamstring

Upper leg pain quiz

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Upper leg pain symptoms

It sounds like you might need to skip the squats at the gym today! It might even be worth taking the elevator instead of the stairs. Those large upper leg muscles provide a lot of area for pain and, when the upper leg hurts, it can really limit mobility.

For most of us, our legs are important components of our everyday lives. Upper leg pain makes it difficult to walk, exercise, and even drive a car.

Common characteristics of upper leg pain

If you're experiencing upper leg pain, it can likely be described by the following.

  • Discomfort while standing or walking
  • Inability to put weight on the leg
  • Bruising, discoloration, or bleeding
  • Sudden, sharp pain
  • Lingering pain
  • Dark purple or blue-colored veins

Legs give us the freedom to run, walk, jump, climb, and negotiate the world around us. The upper leg, in particular, is comprised of bones and muscles that are susceptible to injury, particularly when excess strain is placed upon them. The muscles in the upper leg power many of our movements.

Depending on the origin of the discomfort, upper leg pain symptoms can be a chronic nuisance or acute and debilitating. Upper leg pain is often caused by overexertion but can also be an indicator of more significant issues which require medical attention.

Causes of upper leg pain

Given its size and the wide range of motions it supports, upper leg pain symptoms are common. Pain in the large bones and muscles of the upper leg can be caused by a wide range of ailments.

Whether treatment is a home remedy or provided by a medical professional, identifying the upper leg pain causes can be useful in determining how to move forward.

Traumatic upper leg pain causes

Causes of upper leg pain related to trauma may include the following.

  • Strains: During athletic activity or when the upper leg muscles are overstretched during everyday tasks the muscles can be strained.
  • Bruising: Direct impacts to the upper leg can damage the muscles and skin tissue, causing discoloration and pain.
  • Breaks: Significant trauma can fracture or break the femur and prohibit movement.
  • Cramps: Muscles contract when they are fatigued, or the body is dehydrated.

Systemic disease upper leg pain causes

Upper leg pain may be the result of systemic disease, such as the following.

  • Tumors: Growths in the legs and lower back, cancerous or not, compress nerves and limit mobility resulting in pain.
  • Vascular: Abnormal conditions of the veins and arteries result in a wide range of conditions. The upper leg is often afflicted by varicose veins, for example.

Inflammatory upper leg pain causes

Upper leg pain may result due to inflammatory processes, such as the following.

  • Autoimmune: Diseases that affect nerves, particularly in the lower back can deliver pain to the upper leg. Spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease are examples that can impact the upper leg.
  • Infections: Infections of the bones and tissues of the upper leg can result in swelling, redness, and pain.

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

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.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options. Generally, this condition is treated with rest, physical therapy, pain medication, and occasionally corticosteroid injections.

Rarity: Rare

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

Spinal stenosis

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.

Next steps including visiting a primary care physician. For this condition, a physician might suggest further investigation including imaging of the spine. Treatments may include medications, physical therapy, or braces. For severe cases, surgery is sometimes recommended.

Rarity: Common

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

Repetitive strain injury of the quadriceps

Repetitive strain injury of the upper leg is caused by consistent repetitive use.

You do not need treatment, just rest from your overuse. Wearing a brace and physical therapy might be helpful.

Rarity: Uncommon

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

Urgency: Self-treatment

Repetitive strain injury of the hamstring

Repetitive strain injury of the upper leg is caused by consistent repetitive use.

You do not need treatment, just rest from your overuse. Wearing a brace and physical therapy might be helpful.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: upper leg numbness, thigh weakness, hamstring pain from overuse

Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the hamstring: hamstring pain from overuse

Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the hamstring: upper leg injury, severe upper leg pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

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.

Rarity: Common

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

Mild/moderate 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

Iliotibial (IT) band syndrome ('runner's knee')

Iliotibial band syndrome is also called ITBS or IT syndrome. The iliotibial band is a long, thick piece of connective tissue that begins at the top of the hip bone, runs down the outside of the leg, and attaches at the side of the knee.

ITBS is an overuse syndrome. Athletes in heavy training are susceptible to it, especially runners and cyclists. Pain and inflammation result if the far end of the iliotibial band constantly rubs against the outside of the knee joint.

Symptoms include pain on the outside of the knee, especially while running or while sitting with the knee flexed.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination, with simple stretching tests to identify the exact location of the pain. An MRI is sometimes ordered.

Treatment involves rest; ice; over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; stretching exercises for the iliotibial band; strengthening of the upper leg muscles; and, if needed, changes in the way the person strides or trains. Corticosteroid injections can be helpful and surgery may be tried in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: knee pain, pain in one knee, dull, achy knee pain, knee pain that gets worse when going down stairs, sharp knee pain

Symptoms that always occur with iliotibial (it) band syndrome ('runner's knee'): knee 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.

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.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dull, achy hip pain, pain in one thigh, thigh pain, spontaneous hip pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Deep vein thrombosis

A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep in the body, usually in the lower leg or thigh. DVT can cause swelling, pain, and redness in the affected leg. Some of the risk factors for developing DVT include obesity, pregnancy, cancer, surgery, and previous history of blood clots.

You should consider calling your primary care or urgent care provider. Deep vein thrombosis can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms, a physical exam, and an ultrasound. A blood test may also be performed. Once diagnosed, DVT can be treated with blood-thinning medication, which is usually taken for three months.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, thigh pain, upper leg swelling, calf pain, butt pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Upper leg pain treatments and relief

Fortunately, upper leg pain symptoms can often receive some level of treatment at home.

When upper leg pain is an emergency

Minor upper leg pain is not a cause for concern, but it is important to seek immediate attention if you experience the following upper leg pain symptoms:

  • Deep cuts or exposed bones
  • Fever and upper leg pain
  • Inability to walk
  • Redness and warmth to the touch
  • Pale skin that is cool to the touch

At-home upper leg pain treatments

Cramps and strains lend themselves well to home remedies. Try the following.

  • Rest, stretching, and ice: Taking time to let the body heal can sometimes be the best medicine for mild pain. Keeping the leg elevated and taking warm baths will help increase blood flow and loosen the muscles. Pain from varicose veins can also often be relieved with exercise and elevation.
  • Over-the-counter pain relief: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), are commonly used to help reduce pain and limit inflammation.

When to see a doctor for upper leg pain

More significant traumatic events or complex underlying issues will require medical attention from a professional. You should also see your doctor if your upper leg pain worsens or otherwise persists.

  • Prescription medications: Antibiotics could be prescribed by your doctor to treat infection or stronger pain relief medication may be necessary to manage significant pain.
  • Surgery: Deep wounds, bone breaks, and the removal of cancerous tumors will likely require operations to treat. These procedures will help ensure the upper leg heals properly.

The upper leg is large for a reason. It plays an important role in many functions of the leg so even mild pain can be more than a nuisance. Taking the time to properly care for a painful upper leg will help expedite healing and limit discomfort, but always contact your doctor when the pain is persistent, or a larger traumatic event has occurred.

FAQs about upper leg pain

Why do I have upper leg pain while walking?

Pain in the upper leg is common and likely a result of muscular issues. Cramps caused by dehydration, certain medications, or overuse of the muscles could be the culprit. An injury, such as a strain or stress fracture in the bones, may also be causing this pain.

What does a pulled leg muscle feel like?

The term pulled muscle typically refers to a muscle strain and happens from overexertion and poor flexibility. A pulled muscle in your leg will likely result in localized pain in the affected muscle. Moving the muscle will be difficult. You may also find that the muscle is swollen and tender to the touch.

Why do my legs ache when I lie down?

If your cardiovascular system is not performing as it should (or has a serious issue) then circulation to the legs might be limited when you lie down, causing pain. Another cause is Restless Legs Syndrome which is a disorder that results in unpleasant feelings in the legs and a persistent urge to move.

Can a blood clot cause upper thigh pain?

Yes. Blood clots can form in the thigh, typically deep within the leg. In addition to being painful, clots that form in this area can be particularly dangerous. The clot is called deep-vein thrombosis and, if dislodged, can migrate to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism.

What is causing burning pain in the front of my thigh?

This sensation in the front of the thigh is likely due to nerve damage. Several nerve conditions, including meralgia paresthetica, are linked to this symptom and it is important to consult your doctor to determine a diagnosis. Your doctor will likely want to know the extent of the burning and frequency, and whether it occurs in both legs or only one.

Questions your doctor may ask about upper leg pain

  • Where is your upper leg pain located?
  • Do your symptoms get worse when you exercise?
  • Do you run for exercise or sport?
  • What is your body mass?

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

Hear what 2 others are saying
Once your story receives approval from our editors, it will exist on Buoy as a helpful resource for others who may experience something similar.
The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Left leg keeps collapsingPosted December 29, 2023 by W.
A year ago I broke my hip and my femur I'm now having pain in my upper left thigh, the left leg keeps collapsing when I put weight on it I have to walk around with at least one stick. In the last few weeks it's got worse.
Pain when walkingPosted January 24, 2022 by F.
I used to dance Zumba for exercise and also do HIIT and do lift weights. I noticed that it hurts to walk upper thigh. But no pain when I walk backwards. Also if I carry something heavy all the more it hurts. My doctor had xraopf my back and they found degeneration of l4&5. How can I cure the pain
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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