Pain in the upper thigh can be difficult to diagnose because this area of the body contains many muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
This kind of pain may often be due to minor muscle injuries that are treatable at home. When the pain is intense or does not go away, however, it may signal a more serious problem.
In this article, we examine some common causes of pain in the upper thigh, along with any symptoms that may occur alongside. We also take a look at the treatment options and how to prevent this type of pain.
Upper thigh pain can be caused by muscle injuries, nerve problems, and a few other conditions.
Because of a large number of muscles in the upper thigh, pain in this area is often due to a muscle injury. Some common muscle injuries in this area include:
Muscle sprains and strains
Sprains and strains can affect any of the many muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the thigh.
A sprain is a torn or stretched ligament. Ligaments connect bones to other bones.
A strain is a torn or stretched muscle or tendon. Tendons connect muscles to bones.
Symptoms of a strain or sprain include:
- sudden pain following a fall, an intense workout, or an overstretched joint
- pain that spreads (radiates) up or down
- difficulty stretching or moving the thigh
- swelling around the painful area
Injuries from overuse
Overuse injuries can occur when a muscle in or around the thigh is worked too hard for too long, or when a person does not warm up before exercise.
The pain tends to get worse with time. Eventually, the pain may occur even when a person rests the injured area.
The main sign of an overuse injury is pain following exercise or intense physical activity. The pain may affect both thighs.
Not getting enough exercise or spending too much time sitting each day can damage the muscles, causing chronic pain.
Sitting for long periods can put pressure on the joints and muscles, particularly of the hips and legs. Lack of activity may also cause the muscles to weaken, triggering widespread muscle pain.
People who have upper thigh pain due to a sedentary lifestyle may also feel pain throughout their body. The pain can move or change in intensity over time, and some people with this type of pain may experience widespread chronic pain.
Radiating pain from another injury
Injuries in other areas of the body can cause pain to spread to the upper thighs. For instance, a hip injury may radiate down to the legs.
Some injuries change how a person walks, causing them to stiffen their muscles without realizing. This can cause pain in the thighs and legs. If a person feels pain in nearby areas, such as in the hips or knees, this could also be the reason why their thighs hurt.
People may also experience pain from nerves in the upper thigh. Nerve pain occurs when there is damage to the nerves. This creates the feeling of pain even when there is not a physical injury to the thigh.
Some common types of nerve pain include:
People with this pain may experience unusual sensations in the thighs and elsewhere, including burning, numbness, prickly sensations, and shooting pains.
Meralgia paresthetica is also called Bernhardt-Roth syndrome. Damage to or pressure on the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, a nerve that affects feeling in the outside of the thigh, can cause this painful sensation.
A person may experience this pain as burning or shooting, and the condition can cause periodic numbness in the upper thigh and hips.
A bruise, even one that is not visible, can be intensely painful. This pain is often throbbing and occurs in a single area.
Pain from a minor injury such as a bruise does not typically radiate elsewhere.
Numerous chronic conditions can cause pain in the upper thigh. People with fibromyalgia experience chronic widespread pain at specific pressure points. Leg pain often occurs just above the knees and on the back of the upper thighs.
Various types of arthritis can cause pain throughout the body, including in the thighs. The pain of osteoarthritis is often concentrated in the hip and knee joints but may radiate down or up.
Rarely, pain in the upper thigh can be due to a blood clot in a blood vessel. Also called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), this painful condition can become life-threatening if the clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs, heart, or brain.
People who take long flights, are sedentary for extended periods, have poor circulation, smoke, have cardiovascular disease, or are pregnant or overweight are at a heightened risk of developing DVT.
- unexplained pain in a leg that does not get better after a few days
- swelling, redness, or heat along a leg vein
- tenderness in a specific spot on the leg
- pain when walking
- shortness of breath when a clot breaks loose and moves to the heart and then to the lungs (pulmonary embolus)
A blood clot is a medical emergency that needs immediate medical treatment.
Pain in different areas of the thigh
Sometimes, pain can radiate to the front, sides, and back of the thigh, and each might occur due to different causes.
Outside of the thigh
Back of the thigh
Injuries or sprains of the hamstring can cause pain in the back of the thigh.
Front of the thigh
Sciatica in L3 might also refer pain to the front of the thigh. A strain or bruise of the quadriceps can also cause pain in this area.
As upper thigh pain has many causes, and its risk factors vary. Some risk factors include:
- chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis
- taking part in sports
- a sedentary lifestyle
- poor circulation
- a history of injuries to the legs or hips
No single test can diagnose the cause of upper thigh pain.
The process usually begins with an exam of the area. The doctor will also take a complete medical history and ask about recent injuries.
If the doctor finds no obvious cause, diagnostic tests may include:
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans to view the muscles
- X-rays to check the bones
- ultrasound imaging to check for blood clots
- blood tests to assess for medical conditions such as arthritis
- joint aspiration, a procedure that involves removing fluid from a joint to check for certain joint problems
- nerve tests, such as nerve conduction studies and electromyography
Treatment for upper thigh pain depends on its cause.
Minor injuries often improve with home treatment, including rest, heat, ice, compression, elevation, and gentle massage.
Other treatment options may include:
- pain relief medication for unexplained chronic pain
- medication for chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis
- surgery to repair damaged or trapped nerves
- physical and exercise therapy
- surgery to repair damaged muscles, tendons, or ligaments
- physical therapy
- diabetes medications to prevent further nerve damage
- blood thinners if there is a blood clot in the leg
- alternative treatments, such as massage therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture
Left untreated, pain in the upper thigh may get worse. It can also radiate to other areas of the body, making it hard to move and causing chronic pain.
The most significant complication is if there is a blood clot in the leg. These blood clots can break loose and cause an embolism, which is when an artery becomes blocked.
An embolism can be fatal in a matter of minutes. If leg pain is severe, appears out of nowhere, or does not improve in a few days, a person should see a doctor.
Some steps that may help prevent upper thigh pain include:
- remaining physically active
- taking frequent stretching breaks during extended periods of sitting
- stretching before and after exercise
- working with a personal trainer to determine a healthful level of activity that will not lead to overuse injuries
- managing and treating medical conditions, such as diabetes and arthritis
Most upper thigh pain is treatable and curable.
The most significant challenge with pain in this area of the body is getting a diagnosis. It can take visits to several specialists to work out the cause of the pain.
Not all pain is easily treatable, however. People with unexplained chronic pain may need to try several treatments before something works. With persistent treatment, however, most people can recover from upper thigh pain.