Experts have only recently begun to recognize how widespread leg pain may be in people with endometriosis. A 2016 study reports that as many as 50 percent of people with endometriosis may experience some form of leg pain.
A person with endometriosis may feel pain in their lower body if the condition affects the nerves in and around their pelvis. Diagnosing endometriosis-related leg pain can be tricky because a wide range of other medical conditions that are better understood and easier to diagnose can also cause leg pain.
In this article, we look at why endometriosis might cause leg pain, and what a person can do to treat it at home, or with a doctor's help.
What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a chronic, noncancerous condition where cells that resemble the uterus lining, called endometrial cells, grow outside the uterus. This causes chronic inflammation and can lead to scarring.
It is difficult to estimate how many people have endometriosis because the condition often goes undiagnosed. By some estimates, at least 1 in 10 women in the United States have endometriosis.
Below is a fully interactive 3-D model showing endometrial tissue growing outside the uterus.
Explore the model using your mouse pad or touchscreen to understand more about endometriosis.
Can endometriosis cause leg pain?
During regular menstruation, the uterus lining sheds and leaves the body through the vagina. This happens in response to changing hormone levels. When endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus, the cells still shed, but they cannot leave the body, causing painful symptoms.
In some cases, endometrial tissues grow in and around the many nerves that travel through the pelvis and hip. These nerves supply sensation to the leg.
Abnormal growths can put pressure on the pelvic nerves. This may cause pain and numbness in the hips, buttock, and legs. Nearly all of the documented cases of leg pain associated with endometriosis involve abnormal growths on the sciatic nerve or one of its branches.
The sciatic nerve is considered the largest and longest nerve in the human body. It begins in the lower back, runs through the pelvis, and down the leg into the foot, branching into several smaller nerves along the way. Pressure on this nerve can cause pain in the lower body.
What does this pain feel like?
The sciatic nerve provides sensation to most of the lower portion of the body. Pressure on the sciatic nerve can, therefore, cause a lot of different symptoms, most commonly pain, numbness, and tingling that radiates into the following areas:
- outside of the leg
- back of the thighs and calf
- sole, heel, and top of the foot
Treating endometriosis leg pain
Gentle stretching and walking may help to treat leg pain caused by endometriosis.
There are several ways to help manage lower limb pain associated with endometriosis at home. Many of the methods that help reduce leg pain from endometriosis also help reduce the other common symptoms of the condition.
Everyday tips for finding relief include:
- Gentle stretching, focusing on the buttocks, thighs, calf, and feet muscles.
- Gentle exercise, such as yoga, swimming, or walking can often help ease inflammation.
- Take over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin to ease inflammation and pain.
- Use over-the-counter pain-relieving topical treatments, such as tiger balm, on the painful areas.
- Eat fruits and vegetables, especially foods rich in fiber and antioxidants, such as leafy green vegetables, berries, and citrus fruits.
- Eat lean meats and nuts that contain anti-inflammatory compounds, such as omega-3. This might include fish, walnuts, almonds, or sesame seeds.
- Limit foods linked with inflammation, such as red meat, alcohol, and heavily refined or preserved foods.
- Stay hydrated, as dehydration can intensify inflammation and pain throughout the whole body.
- Apply ice to the affected area using an icepack wrapped in a towel or dishcloth for 15 minutes sessions several times daily.
- Apply heat to the affected area using a heating bag or hot water bottle several times daily.
- Minimize stress, especially during or after menstruation or when symptoms are their worst.
- Talk with a mental health professional to get help managing the stress of living with chronic pain.
- Learn and practice mindful exercises, such as meditation and guided visualization, to help distract the mind from pain and stress.
- Seek alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage therapy.
A person may also find that taking natural supplements that contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds can help with symptoms. Natural supplements may include:
- vitamins C, E, and A
- magnesium glycinate
- omega-3 fatty acids
- devil's claw
Other symptoms of endometriosis
A person with endometrial tissue growth on their pelvic nerves may also have growths on other organs and structures in the pelvic region. This means that people who have leg pain may also experience some of the more common symptoms of the condition.
Common symptoms of endometriosis include:
- extremely painful, heavy periods, called dysmenorrhea
- chronic pelvic, abdominal, and sometimes lower back cramps and pain
- blood in urine or stool during menstruation
- diarrhea or constipation
- pain when using the washroom during menstruation
- migraine headaches
- pain after or during sexual activity, called dyspareunia
- nausea and vomiting
- unexplained fatigue
- frequent or chronic yeast infections
Some people with endometriosis experience symptoms randomly or sporadically, especially when the growths are blocking or restraining a pelvic or abdominal organ.
Individuals with chronic, untreated endometriosis may eventually feel pelvic or abdominal pain most of the time.
Complications of endometriosis
Those with endometriosis should be aware of any changes in their symptoms and address them with a doctor.
One of the most significant complications of endometriosis, aside from chronic pain and discomfort, is infertility. Around 30 to 40 percent of people with endometriosis are unable to become pregnant because of internal scarring.
The severity of the complications usually depends on the location, size, and thickness of the abnormal growths in the pelvis.
When endometriosis involves leg pain, additional complications may include:
- difficulty sitting, especially for long periods of time or on hard surfaces
- difficulty walking
- loss of muscle mass in the buttocks, thighs, and calves
- altered sensation in the legs and feet
- trouble falling and staying asleep
- restless leg syndrome
- missing work or being unable to do day-to-day tasks because of pain, especially in the time before and during menstruation
- depression or anxiety because of pain and stress of living with a chronic condition
In very rare cases, a person with leg, hip, and buttock pain caused by untreated endometriosis may lose some sensation in their legs or feet.
Endometriosis can affect a range of pelvic or abdominal organs and structures, including the pelvic nerves that supply sensation to the legs.
Though it was once considered rare, more people may experience leg pain linked to endometriosis than previously thought.
A person should talk to their doctor about chronic leg pain, especially if it gets much worse during menstruation. Left untreated, chronic endometriosis growths on the sciatic nerve or one of its branches can have more serious consequences.