By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Sore, aching and painful legs plague many of us every day. But for some the painful problem is very specific – a burning feeling in the leg that causes significant discomfort and distress.
A burning sensation can be described as a heat in the leg, or an itchiness, sensitivity or pain like someone held a hot iron to your skin.
Burning pain is often related to the nerves but there are many potential causes of burning leg pain. Find out what is most likely to cause a burning feeling in the leg, and what you can do to cure or prevent the problem. Are there natural remedies which can help?
What are the Reasons for a Burning Feeling in the Leg?
Burning feelings under the skin or in the muscles are commonly the result of problems with the nervous system. The central nervous system and the peripheral nerves that run through your body can be compressed, damaged, or pinched for many reasons – and the result is often a burning pain.
Nerve damage can be caused by normal aging and wear and tear, injury, or conditions like diabetes and arthritis.
When Should I See a Doctor for Burning Feeling in the Leg?
A burning pain in the leg, or anywhere else in the body, can be a cause for concern but luckily, in many cases, the pain is short-lived and not the result of anything serious.
However, if the burning pain begins suddenly, pay close attention.
Burning pain in the leg accompanied by loss of bladder or bowel control plus numbness around the anus or vagina could be the sign of "cauda equina syndrome", a rare but potentially paralyzing condition that needs immediate medical attention.
If your leg is warm to the touch and swollen, it could be a sign of deep vein thrombosis – this condition also requires immediate medical attention.
If you feel faint, nauseous, fatigued or short of breath and you have a burning feeling in your leg, get straight to the Emergency Room to have it checked out.
We looked at the specific causes of a burning feeling in the leg, based on recent scientific research, and found out what you can do to prevent and stop this uncomfortable feeling:
1. It Could Be Burning Thigh Pain (Meralgia Paresthetica)
If the burning feeling is located on the outside of your thigh it could be meralgia paresthetica.
Burning thigh pain means that the large nerve in your leg, the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, is being squeezed or squashed.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, you need to remedy this by removing the source of the compression.
For example, if you are wearing tight clothing this needs to be changed --- forget those skinny jeans! --- and any activity that is causing the compression should be stopped. Often the compression is caused by excess weight, and this needs to be lost in order for the burning pain to go away.
2. The Burning Feeling Can be Caused by Decreased Blood Supply to the Legs
If you experience the burning feeling in your leg when you walk, run or exercise it could be due to a decreased blood flow to the leg, called claudication.
Most commonly this is due to peripheral artery disease, a condition that involves the narrowing of the arteries delivering blood to your legs. Obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking all cause this problem.
When you exercise, your muscles need more blood for the oxygen, which results in pain when the blood vessels can’t supply enough.
The herb gingko is said to improve claudication as it helps blood flow in the body, according to a 2000 study by the University of Exeter, UK.
Don’t attempt to treat peripheral artery disease on your own, however, as it is a serious disease that could cause significant complications.
3. Burning in the Leg Could Be Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein in the leg, usually as a result of the leg being inactive for a period of time for example during bed rest or a long plane ride.
Deep vein thrombosis is a serious condition that needs immediate medical attention because if a part of the clot breaks away it can cause a pulmonary embolism – a possibly fatal blockage of blood flowing to the lungs. Inflammation in the vein can also occur near to the surface, which is called superficial phlebitis. This condition normally resolves on its own.
You need to see a doctor immediately if you suspect deep vein thrombosis.
You can do things to protect against the condition, however, such as wearing compression stockings on a long flight and making sure that you avoid sitting in cramped conditions for long periods of time.
Oligomeric proanthocyanidins – pine bark or grape seed derivatives – can help to thin the blood and prevent deep vein thrombosis, according to a 1999 study from Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany.
4. Peripheral Neuropathy Causes a Burning Feeling in the Leg
Neuropathy is a condition affecting the peripheral nerves that link the spinal cord with the muscles, skin, and internal organs.
Neuropathy can cause a heavy sensation in the limbs and may result in a burning sensation in the legs. Peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of diabetes - the Neuropathy Association says around 60 to 70 percent of people who suffer from diabetes will also suffer from peripheral neuropathy at some point.
A 1999 study by M Weintraub shows that magnetic insoles as magnet therapy help to treat the burning pain associated with peripheral neuropathy. The four-month trial demonstrated a significant reduction in symptoms for people using the insoles as opposed to placebo.
5. A Burning Feeling May be Due to Sciatica
Sciatica is an inflammation of the sciatic nerve that runs down the back of each thigh, and the consequences are typically felt from your lower back, down your leg to your toes.
The nerve irritation can feel like a burning pain in your leg, or a shooting pain down your thigh. Often sciatica will resolve itself on its own, or may need physical therapy interventions.
Acupuncture may also be helpful for treating burning pain caused by sciatica. A 1997 study from East Finchley Clinic, London, England demonstrates that acupuncture shows promise for treating sciatic pain and needs further investigation.
6. Arthritis as a Cause of Burning in the Leg
Osteoarthritis is a common form of arthritis where cartilage in the joints breaks down, resulting in inflammation and pain.
The pain can spread from the affected joint, sometimes causing a burning feeling in the leg.
Avocado and soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs) – extracts of these two substances – are believed to show good promise for treating the pain associated with osteoarthritis.
A 2001 study from Erasmus University Hospital of Brussels, Belgium looked at 260 people with knee arthritis and they received either 300 or 600mg of the remedy per day, or a placebo. Results show that arthritis symptoms significantly improved with ASUs compared to placebo.
7. Burning Legs Could Be Caused by an Electrolyte Imbalance
The performance of your muscles depends on the nerves that serve them being fed with a good balance of electrolytes – sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, for example. If you are dehydrated or are taking certain medications, electrolyte levels can fall too low. When this happens it causes leg pain and cramps.
Painful burning feelings in the legs and leg cramps are commonly experienced by pregnant women. In a 1995 study by Linköping University Hospital, Sweden, three weeks’ of magnesium supplements helped reduce the symptoms in pregnant women, compared to a placebo.