Heavy legs are often described as legs that feel weighted, stiff, and tired — as if the legs are hard to lift and move forward. It might almost feel as if you’re dragging around a 5-pound bag of flour.
A variety of conditions can produce this feeling. The first step to relief is determining the underlying cause.
Heavy legs can be caused by a wide-ranging collection of disorders. They include the following:
These are veins, usually in the legs and feet, that become enlarged and take on a bumpy, knotted appearance. Varicose veins often appear:
- as we age
- during pregnancy (thanks to fluctuating hormones and the increasing pressure of the uterus)
- during other hormonal events, such as menopause
- in those who are obese
- in those who have a family history of the condition
- in those who have occupations that require a lot of standing and sitting, which impacts circulation
The veins become enlarged when they start to lose elasticity and valves become weakened, allowing blood that should be recirculating through the body to pool in the legs. This pooled blood can make legs feel heavy and tired.
As many as 23 percent of adults in the United States have varicose veins. They occur more frequently in women than men.
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
This is actually a form of cardiovascular disease that occurs when fatty deposits build up in the walls of your arteries, narrowing them. While PAD can occur anywhere, it most often affects the legs. Without enough blood circulating, your legs can feel tired, crampy, and achy. These symptoms are one of the first signs of PAD.
The same things that cause fatty buildup in your other arteries cause them in your legs as well. High cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure are top risk factors. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that 8 to 12 million Americans have PAD.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS)
Athletes are constantly striving to improve their performance. But when they train to excess without giving the body time to recover, they can have a number of health-related problems, including heavy legs.
When you “overreach,” which means pushing just a little bit harder than what you think you’re capable of day after day, muscles don’t have time to repair themselves. Heavy legs are a common complaint in athletes — particularly runners and cyclists.
Lumbar spinal stenosis
This refers to a narrowing of the spinal column. When this narrowing occurs, vertebrae (the bones of the spine) and discs (which sit between each vertebra and absorb impact) can pinch the spinal canal, causing pain. While that pain can affect the lower back, it also can occur in the legs, causing weakness, numbness, and heaviness.
Some risk factors include:
- smoking (compounds in cigarettes can restrict blood vessels)
- age (spinal column narrowing can result naturally during the aging process)
- obesity (excess weight stresses the entire body, including the spine)
Restless legs syndrome
This condition is marked by an uncomfortable feeling in the legs — often described as aching, throbbing, and crawling — that occurs while resting. It’s relieved with movement. The cause isn’t known, but researchers think there’s a genetic component as well as a dysfunction in how the brain processes movement signals.
People most at risk are those who:
- smoke and drink alcohol
- take certain medications that alter brain chemicals
- take cold medication
- are pregnant
- have nerve damage
There also seems to be a strong association between fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic muscle pain and fatigue, and restless legs. Research suggests that people with fibromyalgia are 10 times more likely to have restless legs syndrome.
People with heavy legs describe them as:
Heavy legs can also appear:
- swollen (because of circulatory problems)
- bumpy (due to varicose veins)
- with sores that are slow to heal (skin needs a proper blood supply to heal)
- pale or bluish (due to poor circulation)
When to seek help
Everyone experiences the feeling of heavy legs every once in a while. You may have sat too long or worked out too hard.
But when the feeling is more than occasional or your symptoms are bothersome, you should definitely see your doctor. They’ll look at your medical history, ask about your symptoms, and do any tests necessary to pinpoint a cause.
For example, to help diagnose PAD, they may suggest you have an ultrasound to see how blood is flowing through the arteries.
How to get relief at home
There’s a lot you can do to help relieve the pain and achiness you may be experiencing.
- Lose weight if you need to. Obesity can lead to varicose veins as well as diabetes and a buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries, blocking blood flow.
- Stop smoking. Smoking is a risk factor for several conditions that cause heavy legs.
- Take days off from intense exercise.
- Elevate your legs about 6 to 12 inches above the level of your heart. This helps blood that’s pooled in your legs to drain out to the rest of your body. Massaging your leg is an added bonus.
- Wear compression stockings to help promote blood flow.
- Be active. An effective way to control weight, lower cholesterol, and improve circulation is by being active. You’ll need to cater your workout routine to your fitness level and be sure to get guidance from your doctor.
Because heavy legs are a symptom of some serious conditions, it’s important that you seek treatment. Once you know what’s causing your legs to feel heavy and develop a treatment plan, you should be able to control the pain and live a normal, healthy life.