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Search Health Information    Leg Injuries

Leg Injuries

Topic Overview

Minor leg injuries are common. Symptoms often develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or an injury. Leg injuries are most likely to occur during:

  • Sports or recreational activities.
  • Work-related tasks.
  • Work or projects around the home.

Most leg injuries in children and teens occur during sports or play or from accidental falls. The risk for injury is higher in contact sports, such as wrestling, football, or soccer, and in high-speed sports, such as biking, in-line skating, skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding. Knees, ankles, and feet are the most affected body areas. Any injury occurring at the end of a long bone near a joint may injure the growth plate and needs to be checked by a doctor.

Older adults have a higher risk for injuries and fractures because they lose muscle mass and bone strength ( osteoporosis ) as they age. They also have more problems with vision and balance, which increases their risk for accidental injury.

Most minor injuries will heal on their own, and home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve symptoms and promote healing.

Acute (traumatic) injury

An acute injury may occur from a direct blow, a penetrating injury, a fall, or from twisting, jerking, jamming, or bending a limb abnormally. Pain may be sudden and severe. Bruising and swelling may develop soon after the injury. Acute injuries usually require prompt medical evaluation and may include:

  • Bruises ( contusions ), which occur when small blood vessels under the skin tear or rupture, often from a twist, bump, or fall. Blood leaks into tissues under the skin and causes a black-and-blue color that often turns colors, including purple, red, yellow, and green, as the bruise heals.
  • Injuries to the tough, ropey fibers (ligaments) that connect bone to bone and help stabilize joints ( sprains ).
  • Injuries to the tough, ropey fibers that connect muscle to bone (tendons), such as a ruptured Achilles tendon .
  • Pulled muscles ( strains ), such as a hamstring strain.
  • Muscle ruptures, such as gastrocnemius rupture.
  • Broken bones ( fractures ). A break, such as a lower leg fracture , may occur when a bone is twisted, bent, jammed, struck directly, or used to brace against a fall.
  • Pulling or pushing bones out of the normal relationship to the other bones that make up a joint ( dislocations ).

Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries occur when too much stress is placed on a joint or other tissue, often by "overdoing" an activity or doing the same activity repeatedly. Overuse injuries include:

  • Inflammation of the sac of fluid that cushions and lubricates the bones ( bursitis ).
  • Inflammation, tearing, or fraying of the tough, ropey fibers that connect muscles to bones ( tendinitis ).
  • Hairline cracks in bones, such as stress fractures of the foot .
  • Inflammation of the fibrous covering of the bone (periosteum) where muscle fibers attach to it ( shin splints ).
  • Inflammation of the plantar fascia, a broad, flat ligament on the bottom of the foot ( plantar fasciitis ).
  • Inflammation at the top of the shinbone (tibia) where the patellar tendon attaches to a bony prominence ( Osgood-Schlatter disease ). This is more likely to occur during rapid growth periods and is usually seen in athletic teenagers, especially those who play football, basketball, or soccer, and those who are involved with gymnastics and dance. Osgood-Schlatter disease involves both legs about 25% of the time and is rarely a chronic, lifelong condition.

Treatment

Treatment for a leg injury may include rest, ice, elevation, and other first aid measures (such as the application of a brace, splint, or cast), or physical therapy. Some leg injuries are treated with medicine or surgery, especially if a bone is broken. Treatment depends on:

  • The location, type, and severity of the injury.
  • When the injury occurred.
  • Your age, health condition, and activities, such as work, sports, or hobbies.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

First aid for a suspected broken bone

  • Control bleeding .
  • Remove all anklets or rings . It may be hard to remove the jewelry if your leg or foot swells. Swelling without the removal of jewelry can cause other serious problems, such as compression of nerves or restriction of blood flow.
  • Do not attempt to straighten an injured leg.
  • Splint the injured leg to protect it from further injury. Loosen the wrap around the splint if signs develop below the wrap that mean the wrap is too tight, such as numbness, tingling, increased pain, swelling, or cool skin.
  • If a bone is sticking out of the skin, do not try to push it back into the skin. Cover the area with a clean bandage.

Cast and splint care

If a cast or splint is applied, it is important to keep it dry and try to move the uninjured parts of your extremity as normally as possible to help maintain muscle strength and tone. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to care for your cast or splint.

Home treatment for a minor injury

If your injury does not require an evaluation by a doctor, you may be able to use home treatment to help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • Rest and protect an injured or sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.
  • Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs immediately to prevent or minimize swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.
    • For the first 48 hours after an injury, avoid things that might increase swelling, such as hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, or alcoholic beverages.
    • After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between heat and cold treatments.
  • Compression, or wrapping the injured or sore area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help decrease swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, because this can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, or swelling in the area below the bandage. Talk to your doctor if you think you need to use a wrap for longer than 48 to 72 hours; a more serious problem may be present.
  • Elevate the injured or sore area on pillows while applying ice and anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help minimize swelling.
  • Remove all rings , anklets, or any other jewelry that goes around a leg. It will be harder to remove the jewelry later if swelling increases.
  • Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Do not massage the injured area if it causes pain.
  • Use a crutch or a cane for the 24 to 48 hours after the injury if it makes you more comfortable and supports the injured area. If you feel you need to use a crutch or cane for more than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain or swelling develops.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Numbness; tingling; or cool, pale skin develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may prevent leg injuries.

General prevention tips

  • Wear your seat belt in a motor vehicle.
  • Don't carry objects that are too heavy.
  • Use a step stool. Do not stand on chairs or other unsteady objects.
  • Wear protective gear during sports or recreational activities, such as roller-skating or soccer. Supportive splints may reduce your risk for injury.
  • Stretch before and after physical exercise, sports, or recreational activities to warm up your muscles.
  • Use the correct techniques (movements) or positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles.
  • Use equipment appropriate to your size, strength, and ability.
  • Avoid overusing your leg doing repeated movements that can injure your bursa or tendon . In daily routines or hobbies, think about the activities in which you make repeated leg movements, and modify the way you do the activities, if possible, to prevent leg injuries from developing.
  • Consider taking lessons to learn the proper technique for sports. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with sports equipment check your equipment to see whether it is well-suited for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
  • If you feel that certain activities at your workplace are causing pain or soreness from overuse, talk to your human resources department for information on alternative ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.

Reduce falls

Keep your bones strong

  • Eat a nutritious diet with enough calcium and vitamin D . (Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.) Calcium is found in dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt; dark green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli; and other foods.
  • Exercise and stay active. It is best to do weight-bearing exercise for at least 2½ hours a week. One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. In addition to weight-bearing exercise, experts recommend that you do resistance exercises at least 2 days a week. Weight-bearing exercises stimulate new bone growth by working the muscles and bones against gravity. Exercises that are not weight-bearing, such as swimming, are good for your general health but do not stimulate new bone growth. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you. Begin slowly, especially if you have been inactive. For more information, see the topic Fitness.
  • Don't drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day if you are a man, or 1 alcoholic drink a day if you are a woman. People who drink more than this may be at higher risk for weakening bones ( osteoporosis ). Alcohol use also increases your risk of falling and breaking a bone.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking puts you at a much higher risk for developing osteoporosis. It also interferes with blood supply and healing. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Possible abuse

Bodily injuries such as bruises, burns, fractures, cuts, or punctures may be caused by abuse. Suspect possible abuse when an injury cannot be explained or does not match the explanation, when repeated injuries occur, or when the explanations for the cause of the injury change. You may be able to prevent further abuse by reporting it and seeking help.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • How and when did an injury occur? How was it treated?
  • Have you had any injuries in the past to the same area? Do you have any continuing problems because of the previous injury?
  • What activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Do you think that activities related to your job or hobbies caused your symptoms?
  • What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Were alcohol or illegal drugs involved in your injury?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised September 19, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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