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What's Causing Your Thigh Pain?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT July 24, 2018 0 Comments

thigh pain

Thigh pain is a common injury, but that does not mean it can’t be serious. While pain and discomfort are sometimes unavoidable, arming yourself with accurate information can help you feel your best and prevent unnecessary complications. The best way to manage thigh pain, whether chronic or acute, is to learn about the location, causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

Understanding Thigh Pain

Pain in the thigh can be caused by a variety of conditions that affect the ligaments, tendons, muscles, joints, bones, nerves, blood vessels, and skin. When left untreated and not addressing potential underlying issues, thigh pain can lead to potentially life-threatening complications.

Location of Thigh Pain

The precise location of thigh pain can vary depending on the underlying issue, such as nerve, muscle, or other connective tissue strain. Once your doctor has determined the reason behind your painful thighs, your treatment plan will focus on pain relief and controlling the root cause.

  • Front Thigh Pain

    Pain in front of the thigh is known as anterior thigh pain. Upper front thigh pain can happen suddenly and may be caused by muscle strains with activity (most often to the quadriceps or hip flexor muscles) or contusions from a direct blow. Chronic or gradual onset of front thigh pain may occur if an injury, or the underlying cause, has not been treated correctly.

  • Back Thigh Pain

    Pain in the back of the thigh is called posterior thigh pain. It can be sudden and acute, or it may be chronic and develop slowly. Back thigh pain may also occur after an injury that fails to heal properly, such as a hamstring strain.

  • Outer Thigh Pain

    The cause of pain in the outer thigh is sometimes obvious, such as a pulled muscle or strained iliotibial band (ITB). However, outer thigh pain can also be due to less obvious conditions, such as a pinched nerve or a knee injury.

  • Inner Thigh Pain

    Inner thigh pain can be different for each person. How pain in the upper thigh presents itself depends on the root cause. An obvious cause of inner and upper thigh pain is a pulled inner thigh muscle, but other causes are not related to physical activity that we will explore more below.

Thigh Pain Causes

What causes thigh pain? There are different reasons a person may experience mid-thigh pain or lower thigh pain, most often related to a musculoskeletal injury. Some appear suddenly after a specific incident, while others develop gradually. Here are the most common causes of thigh pain:

  • Quadriceps Strain

    The muscles in our thighs are made up of three major groups: the adductors, the hamstrings, and the quadriceps. A tear in the quadriceps, attached to the front of the femur, is the most common cause of sudden pain in the front of the thigh. Quadriceps strains typically develop during kicking, jumping, or sprinting.

  • Hamstring Contusion

    A bruise develops when the muscle is crushed against the thigh bone. Hamstring contusions can range from mild to severe and are most common with sports or a fall. If there is stiffness, bruising, and swelling, the pain in the back of the thigh after a direct blow, it may be caused by a hamstring contusion. 

  • Bursitis

    Inflammation or irritation of the lateral hip bursa (known as the trochanteric bursa) typically causes intense pain in the upper, outer thigh. Yet, bursitis can happen in any of the joints. For those with bursitis in the knee, certain activities, such as standing from a seated position or climbing stairs, can be painful.

  • Referred Pain

    If your knee and thigh pain is associated with hip, glute, or back pain, referred pain is often the cause. The term describes pain that is felt in one location though it originates from a problem elsewhere such as the lumbar spine (most often sciatica), hip joint, or knee joint. Pain from the lower back is often accompanied by tingling, numbness, shooting pain, or pain that is hard to pinpoint (also known as neuropathy).

  • Meralgia Paresthetica

    Whether it is left thigh pain or right thigh pain, meralgia paresthetica occurs when too much pressure is put on a nerve in the pelvic area, most often the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve. When this nerve is pinched, the feeling in the upper thigh is affected, resulting in thigh pain. It is most common during pregnancy or if wearing pants that are too tight. Meralgia paresthetica can be easily confused with other conditions.

  • Avulsion Fracture

    An avulsion fracture is one of the less common causes of thigh pain. It happens because of excessive and sudden tension where a tendon or ligament is attached to the bone, which results in a bony fragment being pulled away from the bone and staying embedded in the tissue. An avulsion fracture is associated with sharp pain, loss of function, and swelling. 

Symptoms of Thigh Muscle Pain

The symptoms of thigh muscle pain are often worse with prolonged standing and walking or during activities that require repetitive hip movement (flexion, extension, etc.). The sensations vary, and discomfort is usually alleviated by lying down, sitting, or some other form of rest. Symptoms associated with thigh pain include:

  • Severe pain in the calf (lower leg) and thigh when walking, jumping, changing positions, or going up and down stairs
  • Shooting pain in thigh and knee following a high-impact collision or injury
  • Numbness and burning pain in back of thigh, front of the thigh, or side of the thigh
  • Bruising, swelling, or tenderness anywhere in the upper leg
  • Weakness, a popping sensation, or other abnormalities at the time of injury

Diagnosing Sharp Pain in Thigh

Pain in thigh bones can be characterized as stabbing, with the severity and duration depending on the cause. A dull, aching pain in the thigh rarely requires a doctor visit. Most cases are simple muscular injuries that heal with rest and at-home treatments.

However, there are certain conditions and circumstances that require medical advice. To diagnose thigh pain, your doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination to look at your medical history and for signs of a serious condition, such as nerve damage, a blood clot (DVT), or a fracture. If further assessment is required, an MRI scan, X-ray or ultrasound may be used to confirm the severity and location of your injury.

Recovery Time for Thigh Muscles

Painful thighs can be brief or debilitating, depending on what tissues are injured. The timeframe for returning to daily activities depends on the severity of your injury and the type of injury. For muscle strains, mild leg pain typically heals within a few days to weeks, while moderate strains can take up to six weeks. Whereas more recovery from severe pain often caused by fractures, bursitis, or nerve damage can vary anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Severe Thigh Pain Care and Prevention

Thigh pain can be intermittent or constant. It can develop gradually or suddenly. While it can be frustrating, know that common pain in thigh muscles are easy to treat and are usually preventable with the right understanding too. If you don’t know what is causing your thigh pain or it keeps coming back, talk to your orthopedic doctor or healthcare provider to determine the cause and to determine the best treatment plan to manage your pain, such as home treatment, physical therapy, and more.


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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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