Acute leg pain is very common, and may occur after an exercise injury, muscle overuse, or after spending too long in 1 position. Although pain can be quite severe depending on the extent of the leg injury, proper at-home care and rest frequently allows the body to heal itself without further intervention.
The treatment protocol for acute leg pain, which is characterized by a rapid onset, is different than for chronic pain, which is defined as pain that lasts longer than 3 months. Acute pain sometimes leads to chronic pain, however the conditions are generally different and are approached in different ways.
While at-home treatment for acute leg pain is generally very effective, consider calling a doctor if you develop a fever, have bruising, or experience pain that persists without improvement over several days.
For best results, start a regimen of care as soon as possible after a leg injury to encourage the body to heal as quickly as possible.
Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE)
The most frequently used method for managing acute leg pain resulting from a leg injury is known as RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Rest is perhaps 1 of the more critical components with this method. Many people push themselves too hard, too soon when healing from an injury and end up re-injuring themselves or lengthening the recovery period.
While the body is healing, stay conscious of any pain you experience in the area, and back off of activities or motions that trigger sensation. The rest period may last up to a week or more depending on the severity of the leg injury.
Ice helps to reduce pain and swelling. Avoid putting ice directly on the skin and instead wrap an ice pack in a towel or in a piece of cloth to protect the skin. If you don’t have an ice pack, a frozen water bottle wrapped in a towel also works.
Ice should be applied as soon as possible after injury strikes to stop the blood flow to the area. Keep the ice on the painful area for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, at least 3 times each day for the first 48 to 72 hours. As a bonus, ice helps numb the pain while helping the injury to heal.
During the initial onset of acute leg pain, keep the limb elevated as much as possible. Try stacking a few pillows and resting the leg on top. Ideally, the injured portion of the leg should rest above the heart. This encourages the blood to flow from the injured area back to the heart. If elevating the leg above the heart isn’t possible, strive to keep the leg parallel to the ground.
Compression also helps to decrease swelling, while offering additional support to the injured area. Wrap the leg with an Ace bandage for up to 72 hours. Try to wrap the leg firmly without applying the bandage too tightly. Signals that the leg is wrapped too tightly include swelling below the bandage, numbness, tingling, or pain.
After the leg starts feeling good again, ice as needed, when pain arises, or after gentle stretching during muscle rehabilitation. Once the pain fades, begin gently strengthening and strengthening the injured muscle to encourage complete healing. Stay mindful of the leg injury, and avoid pushing too hard and causing another injury.
While some people recommend heat as a first line of defense against acute leg injuries, the use of hot temperatures to encourage healing is widely debated, according to WebMD.
The idea behind using ice is that it stops blood flow to the injured area and reduces swelling. Heat, on the other hand, actually encourages blood flow to the area and can exacerbate swelling. With this in mind, consider avoiding heat, particularly in the initial few hours or days after injury.
If after 48 hours, all the swelling has gone down, apply a hot towel or a warm heating pad on the area. The heat could encourage healing and restore flexibility to the area. Another option is to alternate heat with ice to derive benefits from both temperature extremes.
If experiencing acute leg pain from muscle overuse without a leg injury or swelling, try taking a hot bath. The heat raises the body’s temperature and helps muscles eliminate the build-up of lactate that causes soreness, stiffness, and pain.
In general, cold works best for acute leg pain while heat helps to alleviate chronic pain.
After the injured area heals and you can move around without feeling pain, the next step is rehabilitation. Restoring strength and flexibility to the injured muscle and those surrounding it is important to protect against future injuries and to ensure complete healing.
Scar tissue starts developing as soon as the leg injury heals, and adopting a stretching regimen ensures the area won’t be overly constricted. If scar tissue is left to develop without stretching, this leaves the entire area tightened and vulnerable to future injury.
Stretching is most effective when done daily, but it is particularly important before partaking in physical exercise, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
The specific type of rehabilitation varies depending on which part of the leg was injured, but generally involves slowly moving the injured area through its range of motion. Weights or exercises using the body’s weight can also help to strengthen the area.
Prevent a future leg injury
The best way to treat a leg injury is to prevent 1 from occurring in the 1st place. Preventative measures include wearing proper shoes that support the foot and provide adequate cushioning.
Warming the muscles up through simple stretches and gradually increasing your heart rate also helps prevent injuries. For example, a good way to warm up for a run is to gently stretch the hamstrings and quads and then walk briskly for a few minutes before picking up the pace.
Once the body’s temperature rises and blood starts flowing, muscles gain flexibility and are less likely to become injured. A study published in the journal Sports Medicine found that a 15-minute warm-up was the optimal amount of time to prevent injury.
What methods have you found most effective for treating acute leg pain from a leg injury?
Image by Giacomo Carena via Flickr