Sharp, shooting pain in the leg may result from a cramp, an injury, or nerve damage. Some of these issues require professional treatment.
While intermittent leg pain is rarely a medical emergency, contact a healthcare professional immediately if the pain is severe or if blood circulation in the leg seems to be limited or cut off.
In this article, we explore several possible causes of sharp, shooting leg pain. We also look at treatments and when to see a doctor.
Sharp, shooting pain can occur anywhere in one or both legs, and it may move up or down the leg. A doctor may refer to this as intermittent leg pain.
The pain may worsen with pressure, which can make it difficult to walk or climb the stairs.
In some cases, intermittent leg pain accompanies a numb, tingling sensation. Other symptoms might include:
- muscle weakness
- dull aching
- twitching in the leg
The following are potential causes of sharp, shooting leg pain that comes and goes:
Cramps are sudden, shooting muscle pains, often in the calves, hamstrings, or quadriceps. The exact causes are unclear, but muscle fatigue is one factor that may contribute.
The pain of leg cramps can be mild to severe. It may last for a few seconds or minutes, but it usually goes away without intervention.
Muscle, tendon, or ligament damage can cause leg pain. This might worsen when putting pressure on the leg, such as by walking.
An injury may also cause:
Radiculopathy refers to a pinched nerve in the spine causing a range of symptoms throughout the body. It may be a result of arthritis or a ruptured disk in the spine.
Lumbar radiculopathy, also known as sciatica, happens when the pinched nerve is in the lower back. It can cause sharp, shooting pain that moves down the legs. Other symptoms include:
- back pain
- muscle weakness
- tingling and numbness in the legs or back
Certain health issues that affect the heart can cause leg pain. Atherosclerosis, for example, occurs when fatty substances called plaques harden in the arteries, causing them to narrow.
Atherosclerosis can lead to peripheral artery disease (PAD), which involves the narrowing of arteries that serve the lower body.
PAD can cause sharp leg pains that come and go with leg activity. The pain may occur with cramping, which may spread to the hips.
Other symptoms of PAD include:
- decreased hair growth on the legs
- cold legs or feet
- slowed growth of toenails
- slowing of wound healing in the legs or feet
- loss of hair on the limbs, hands, or feet
- erectile dysfunction
Diabetic neuropathy is a long-term complication of diabetes, and it involves nerve damage. It can result when high blood sugar levels go unchecked for long periods.
The damage sometimes affects the nerves that run down the legs, causing pain in the area.
Other symptoms of diabetic neuropathy can include:
- a burning sensation
- tingling and numbness
- muscle weakness
A doctor diagnoses the cause of intermittent leg pain by asking about symptoms. They may also ask how the pain feels, how frequently it occurs, and whether there are any triggers, such as walking.
In addition, the doctor checks the person’s records and asks about their personal and family medical histories, to find out, for example, whether there is a family history of PAD.
The doctor then performs a physical examination, which may include checking the pulse and testing the person’s musculoskeletal and neurological functioning.
There may be a need for further testing, which might include medical imaging, such as an MRI. The doctor may also check for any other changes, by taking the person’s blood pressure, for example.
The treatment for leg pain depends on its cause.
In some cases, the pain goes away without professional treatment. For example, the best way to treat a leg cramp is to stretch the muscle and hold the stretch until the symptoms ease.
In other cases, a doctor may prescribe medications to reduce inflammation and treat the pain. Physical therapy is another option for improving flexibility and strength in the leg.
A doctor might recommend lifestyle changes, such as:
- quitting smoking, if applicable
- limiting the intake of alcohol, if applicable
- having a more healthful diet
- getting more exercise
If inflammation is a factor, it can help to apply an ice pack to the area. Keeping the leg elevated and resting it may keep the issue from worsening, and compression bandages can also help with inflammation.
In most other cases, remaining physically active and stretching the leg can be helpful.
Some causes of leg pain, such as cramps and minor muscle injuries, do not require medical care. The symptoms usually go away on their own as the area heals.
However, a doctor needs to treat severe injuries, such as fractures. They can also determine whether severe or persistent pain results from an underlying condition, such as PAD.
Several issues can cause sharp, shooting leg pain that comes and goes, ranging from cramping and minor injuries to more serious health issues, such as neuropathy and PAD.
The pain may accompany other symptoms, such as muscle weakness or numbness.
While cramps and minor injuries tend to heal on their own, it is a good idea to see a doctor about severe or persistent pain.