Discomfort in your upper thigh, such as aching, burning, or pain, can be a common experience. While in most cases it’s nothing to be alarmed about, there are some instances in which pain in your upper thigh can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
Symptoms of upper thigh pain
Thigh pain can range from a mild ache to a sharp shooting sensation. It may also be accompanied by other symptoms including:
- difficulty walking
- burning sensation
When pain comes on suddenly, there’s no apparent cause, or it doesn’t respond to home treatments, such as ice, heat, and rest, you should seek medical treatment.
Causes of upper thigh pain
There are numerous conditions that may contribute to upper thigh pain. They include:
Caused by pressure on the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, meralgia paresthetica (MP) may cause tingling, numbness, and a burning pain in the outer part of your thigh. It typically occurs on one side of the body and is caused by compression of the nerve.
Common causes of meralgia paresthetica include:
- tight clothing
- being overweight or obese
- scar tissue from a past injury or surgery
- diabetes-related nerve injury
- carrying a wallet or cell phone in the front and side pockets of pants
- lead poisoning
Treatment involves identifying the underlying cause, then taking measures such as wearing looser clothing or losing weight to alleviate pressure. Exercises that reduce muscle tension and improve flexibility and strength may also help alleviate pain. Prescription medications and surgery may be recommended in some cases.
Blood clot or deep vein thrombosis
While many blood clots aren’t harmful, when one forms deep in one of your major veins, it’s a serious condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). While deep vein clots appear more frequently in the lower legs, they can also form in one or both thighs. Sometimes there are no symptoms, but other times they may include:
As a result of DVT, some people develop a life-threatening condition known as pulmonary embolism in which a blood clot travels to the lungs. Symptoms include:
- sudden shortness of breath
- chest pain or discomfort that worsens when you take a deep breath or when you cough
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- rapid pulse
- coughing up blood
Risk factors for DVT include:
- having an injury that damages your veins
- being overweight, which puts more pressure on the veins in your legs and pelvis
- having a family history of DVT
- having a catheter placed in a vein
- taking birth control pills or undergoing hormone therapy
- smoking (especially heavy usage)
- staying seated for a long time while you’re in a car or on a plane, especially if you already have at least one other risk factor
Treatment for DVT ranges from lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, to prescription blood thinners, the use compression stockings, and surgery in some cases.
A complication of diabetes, diabetic neuropathy occurs as a result of uncontrolled high blood sugar levels. It typically begins in the hands or feet, but it can spread to other parts of the body as well, including the thighs. Symptoms include:
- sensitivity to touch
- loss of sense of touch
- difficulty with coordination when walking
- numbness or pain in your extremities
- muscle weakness or wasting
- nausea and indigestion
- diarrhea or constipation
- dizziness upon standing
- excessive sweating
- vaginal dryness in women and erectile dysfunction in men
While there is no cure for diabetic neuropathy, treatment to manage pain and other symptoms may involve lifestyle changes and measures to maintain healthy blood sugar levels as well as medications for pain management.
Greater trochanteric pain syndrome
Greater trochanteric pain syndrome can cause pain in the outside of your upper thighs. It’s typically caused by injury, pressure, or repetitive movements, and it’s common in runners and in women.
Symptoms may include:
- pain worsening when lying on the affected side
- pain that worsens over time
- pain following weight-bearing activities, such as walking or running
- hip muscle weakness
Treatment may include lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, treatment with ice, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and steroid injections.
IT band syndrome
Also common among runners, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) happens when the iliotibial band, which runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the skin, becomes tight and inflamed.
Symptoms include pain and swelling, which is typically felt around the knees, but it can also be felt sometimes in the thigh. Treatment includes limiting physical activity, physical therapy, and medications to reduce pain and inflammation. In some extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.
While muscle strains can happen in any part of the body, they’re common in the hamstring and may cause thigh pain. Symptoms may include:
- sudden onset of pain
- limited range of movement
- bruising or discoloration
- a “knotted-up” feeling
- muscle spasms
Typically, strains can be treated with ice, heat and anti-inflammatory medications, but more severe strains or tears may require treatment by a doctor. You should see a doctor if the pain doesn’t get better after several days or if the area is numb, arises without a clear cause, or leaves you unable to move your leg.
Hip flexor strain
Hip flexor muscles can be strained with overuse, and can cause pain or muscle spasms in your thighs as well. Other symptoms of hip flexor strain may include:
- pain that seems to come on suddenly
- increasing pain when you lift your thigh toward your chest
- pain when stretching your hip muscles
- muscle spasms at your hip or thigh
- tenderness to the touch at the front of your hip
- swelling or bruising at your hip or thigh area
Most hip flexor strains can be treated at home with ice, over-the-counter pain relievers, heat, rest, and exercises. In some severe cases, physical therapy and surgery may be recommended.
Risk factors for thigh pain
While there are various causes of thigh pain, each with their own risk factors, common ones include:
- repetitive exercises, such as running
- being overweight or obese
Diagnosis for most conditions that contribute to thigh pain will involve a physical examination by a physician who will evaluate the risk factors and symptoms. In the case of meralgia paresthetica, doctors may order an electromyogram/nerve conduction study (EMG/NCS) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine if nerves have been damaged.
In most cases, thigh pain can be treated with home remedies such as:
- over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil)
- weight management
- moderating activity
- stretching and strengthening exercises for the pelvis, hip, and core
However, if those measures don’t provide relief after several days or if more serious symptoms accompany the pain, you should seek medical treatment. In some cases, physical therapy, prescription medications, and surgery may be required.
The most serious complication of thigh pain is typically related to DVT, which can be life-threatening if not treated. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical treatment:
- shortness of breath
- clammy or bluish skin
- chest pain that may extend into your arm, jaw, neck, and shoulder
- irregular heartbeat
- rapid breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- spitting up blood
- weak pulse
Determining the underlying cause of thigh pain is key to preventing it going forward. While in the case of DVT, prevention may include prescription medication and the use of compression stockings, in many others, preventative techniques include lifestyle changes and home remedies, including:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- performing stretching exercises
- getting moderate physical activity
In most cases, upper thigh pain is not cause for concern. It can typically be treated at home with some simple strategies such as ice, heat, activity moderation, and over-the-counter medication. However, if those don’t work after several days or if more serious symptoms accompany the thigh pain, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
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