Your legs support your body and allow you to walk, run, and jump. But like any other part of your body, they can get hurt or wear out. Learn about some common leg injuries and what you should do about them.
Your legs are a bundle of bones, muscles, and connective tissues that runs from your pelvis, also called hipbones, to your ankle and foot.
Each of your legs has four bones:
- The femur, which runs from your pelvis to your knee, is the largest bone in the body.
- The patella, or kneecap, protects your knee joint.
- The tibia, or shinbone, and fibula connect your knee and ankle.
The bones connect to each other by pieces of flexible, fibrous tissue called ligaments. Similar pieces called tendons connect the muscles that move your leg to the bones. When you hurt your leg, it’s usually a bone fracture or a soft-tissue injury like a sprain or strain of the tendons or ligaments.
A fracture is a break in your bone. It usually happens when you fall, or when something hits you hard. Sometimes, an illness or making the same movements for a long time can make your bones weak and easier to break.
Fractures can be a simple crack in the bone or a complete break that leaves the bone in several pieces. There are two main types of fractures:
Simple fracture. The bone may be cracked or broken, but the skin isn’t broken.
Compound fracture. Also called an open fracture, this is when the broken bone cuts through the skin. Often, the bones stick out of the skin. This is dangerous because both the skin and bone can get infected.
A broken bone is a medical emergency. Get help right away.
Sometimes, you can tell a bone is broken. Sometimes you can’t. Signs of a fracture may include:
If your doctor thinks you have a leg fracture, they’ll X-ray it or use a similar imaging test to locate the break and check how bad it is.
- Most of the time, your doctor can put the broken parts of your bone back together and hold them in place with a cast made of plaster or plastic. These keep you from moving the broken bone while the pieces grow back together.
- If a fracture is hard to hold together or can’t be kept still, artificial parts like metal screws or rods may be used to link the broken pieces.
- Sometimes, your bones need to be pulled to keep them lined up right. This is called traction, and it uses weights, lines, and pulleys installed over your bed.
It can take several weeks or months for a broken leg to heal fully. The time it takes depends on how bad the break was and how healthy you are. Younger people heal faster than those who are older. Most people get better in 6-8 weeks.
If you can’t put weight on your leg, you may need crutches, a cane, or a walker to get around for a while.
You may not be able to make certain moves or exercise right away after your doctor takes your cast off. But with your doctor’s OK, exercise may help you get back to your normal range of motion and strength more quickly.
When you bend or twist your knee or ankle in a way that stretches or tears a ligament, it’s called a sprain. Ankle sprains happen especially often among athletes -- it’s the most common injury in sports.
Signs you’ve sprained a joint include:
- A popping noise when you got hurt
- Muscle tightness
If the sprain is mild, it has only stretched the ligament. The abbreviation RICE can help you remember how to deal with it:
- Rest helps your ligament regain its shape.
- Ice and compression lower swelling.
- Elevation also helps with swelling. Keep the injured joint up.
When to See a Doctor
Most of the time, your sprain will get better in a few days. But if your leg can’t hold your weight, or the joint feels loose or numb, you may have torn the ligament.
If you think that might have happened, see your doctor ASAP. You may need surgery to repair it, and it may take weeks or months for the ligament to heal.
You should also get medical help if the area around the joint turns red or you see red streaks. That’s a sign of an infection.
Like a sprain, a strain involves your leg’s connective tissue. But a strain happens when the stretch or tear is in the muscles or the tendons that connect your bones to muscle. This can happen when you don’t warm up or stretch before physical activity.
Strains can happen suddenly, like when you pick up something heavy, slip on a wet floor, or take off running. Runners and other athletes often get strains. So do people who make the same motions over and over at work or playing sports like tennis.
A group of muscles on the back of your thigh, called the hamstring, is one of the most common points for strains.
A strain typically causes:
You can treat a strain the same way you’d treat a sprain. Rest the strained muscle, ice it, and wrap it with a compression bandage. Keep the area up, above your heart, to make swelling go down. Your doctor, trainer, or physical therapist can show you exercises to help your muscle heal and to get you moving again.
Sometimes, you may need surgery for your strain. If you can’t move the joint, feel numb, or can’t take more than a few steps without pain, call your doctor. Also get medical attention if your pain is right over the bones of the hurt joint.
This happens when you knock your bones out of joint, usually when you fall or crash into something or someone. It happens most often to your shoulder or finger. But you can also dislocate your hip and knee joints.
A dislocated joint may look like a broken bone or be obviously out of place. It’ll probably be painful and swollen, and you might not be able to move it. People who dislocate their hip often get other injuries, like a pelvic fracture. It commonly happens in car accidents.
You should get medical help right away for a dislocated joint. Put ice on the site to keep the swelling down, but don’t try to put the joint back into place yourself.