Doctors call leg pain that comes and goes intermittent claudication.

There are several potential intermittent claudication causes, most of which are due to affected blood flow. However, the cause may be due to something inside the artery or something outside it.

While the pain is rarely a medical emergency, you should seek immediate medical attention if the pain is severe or you don’t think you’re getting circulation to your leg.

Keep reading to learn about the potential causes and treatment of intermittent leg pain.

The following are some potential causes of sharp, shooting pains that come and go.

Peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a common cause of intermittent leg pain. The condition is due to atherosclerosis or a narrowing of arteries. While this condition can affect your body anywhere, it can affect your leg or legs.

What it feels likeWhere it occurs
Sharp, shooting leg pain that gets worse when climbing stairs or walking. Other symptoms include numbness, aching, or a sensation of heaviness in the leg muscles. The pain usually subsides when you rest. The pain may occur anywhere in the legs, including the thighs, buttocks, calves, or feet. You may also notice you have sores or wounds that are slow-healing, one leg that feels colder to the touch than the other, or toenails that grow slower on one leg than the other.

Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy can cause sharp, shooting pains down your leg or legs due to chronic damage from diabetes.

What it feels likeWhere it occurs
Burning or shooting pain that comes and goes and isn’t usually related to activity. Diabetic neuropathy can cause pain in the legs and feet. If you have it, it’s important to regularly check your feet for wounds because diabetic neuropathy may affect your ability to sense when you have an injury.

Chronic exertional compartment syndrome

Chronic exertional compartment syndrome is a common complaint in 30 percent of athletes with leg pain.

Athletes who engage in repetitive activities, such as biking, running, or swimming can develop chronic compartment syndrome.

What it feels likeWhere it occurs
Pain with exercise that usually goes away when a person stops exercising. You may also have numbness, problems moving your foot, or see your muscles bulge with movement. The front part of the lower legs or calf muscles are usually the locations affected.

Cystic adventitial disease

Cystic adventitial disease is a rare disorder that affects the arteries (and sometimes veins) in the leg or legs.

Most people who have this condition have leg pain that comes and goes without risk factors for PVD or PAD, such as:

  • diabetes
  • being overweight
  • smoking

The condition causes a cyst to build up in the leg that can press on arteries in the legs, which affects blood flow.

What it feels likeWhere it occurs
Sharp, shooting pains that come and go. They aren’t always related to activity. Most cystic adventitial disease occurs in the popliteal artery in the lower leg. However, it’s possible a person can develop the condition anywhere in the leg.

Popliteal artery entrapment

Chronic exertional compartment syndrome has a lot of symptoms in common with popliteal artery entrapment. This makes it hard to tell the difference between the two conditions.

What it feels likeWhere it occurs
Pain, cramping and tense sensations. The condition is very rare, affecting less than 1 to 3.5 percent of patients complaining of activity-related leg pain. Numbness in the foot is more likely to indicate popliteal artery entrapment than chronic exertional compartment syndrome. In the calf, and it usually causes the greatest discomfort in the back portion of the leg.

The following are some ways that may help you treat intermittent leg pain at home:

  • Exercise regularly. Although exercise can contribute to some leg pain, exercise sessions at least twice a week helped to reduce walking pain and increase the distance a person can walk, according to a 2017 review.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, quitting is recommended. Smoking is a major risk factor for sharp pains when walking. Smoking can cause changes to blood vessels and make it easier for the blood to clot, which can contribute to leg pain.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Choosing a heart-healthy diet can help you maintain your weight and blood sugar levels. This can help reduce some of the risk factors that can lead to PAD.
  • Cross-training. If your leg pain is related to overuse from physical activity, try a new activity that’s less repetitive on the legs and feet, such as taking an aerobics class or swimming.

Maintaining a healthy weight and taking care of your body can help reduce the sharp, shooting pains whenever possible.

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following symptoms related to your leg pain:

  • lack of pulses in the ankle or top of the foot
  • leg that feels very cold to the touch
  • leg that starts to appear blue or discolored
  • severe leg pain that doesn’t get better with rest

These symptoms may indicate that you’re experiencing severely affected blood flow and may need emergency attention. If you ignore these symptoms, you could lose your toes or leg because of a lack of blood flow.

You should talk to a doctor if you have chronic leg pain, even if it goes away when you rest.

A doctor can evaluate your circulation and possible underlying causes. Treating your leg pain is important to help reduce the chance that your activity level is negatively affected.

A doctor may recommend medications

A doctor may need to prescribe medications to reduce the likelihood that new blood clots will form that’ll further affect blood flow. Examples include anti-platelet medications, such as aspirin or clopidogrel (Plavix).

They may also prescribe medications to reduce leg pain when walking, such as pentoxifylline or cilostazol.

Severely affected blood flow may require surgery

If a person has severely affected blood flow in the legs or medications don’t help, a doctor may recommend surgery to restore blood flow.

Examples include angioplasty, which involves inserting a small balloon to open up the artery, or vein bypass surgery. Indications for surgery usually depend on the underlying cause.

Sharp, intermittent leg pain can limit your activity level. Pain that isn’t related to an injury or doesn’t cause a consistent level of pain can often be treated at home with certain lifestyle changes.

However, if your pain becomes severe or you have symptoms of poor circulation, seek immediate medical attention. A doctor can diagnose the cause of your pain and recommend treatment options.