Shooting pains in the leg are a common symptom of sciatica, a condition that can interrupt your daily activities and cause a lot of discomfort. But other health problems can also contribute to the sensation of shooting pains in the leg. So how can you tell what’s causing your leg pain, and what can help with recovery?
Here, you’ll learn many of the possible causes of shooting pains in the leg, how leg pain is diagnosed and treated, and whether you should be concerned about this symptom.
Why am I getting shooting pains in my leg?
Shooting pains in the leg are often described as sharp or electric shock-type pains that radiate from the hip down to the thigh, knee, or calf. They’re often caused by a trapped nerve, though this isn’t always the case.
Here are seven possible causes of shooting pains in your leg.
If your shooting pains are relatively short-lived, you may be suffering from cramp. Leg cramps are very common, especially in the calf, and usually happen when you’re asleep or resting. Athletes who have been exercising for a long period may also experience cramp due to dehydration and/or lack of electrolytes .
It’s not always obvious what causes cramp in non-athletes, but some common causes include:
- Getting older.
- Exercising hard (especially in hot weather).
Most cases of cramp will stop within a few minutes without treatment, though stretching or massaging your calf can speed up the recovery process. To prevent cramp, make sure you drink enough water during the day, and exercise within your limits.
Sciatica affects up to 40% of the population at some point in their life . Often characterised by shooting pains that start at the lower back, buttocks, or hip and radiate down the leg, sciatica is one of the most common causes of leg pain.
Sciatica is normally caused by a herniated disc in your spine. The slipped disc compresses the sciatic nerve, leading to tingling, numbness and/or discomfort in the hips and legs and even sciatic knee pain.
The following treatments may help relieve shooting leg pains caused by sciatica:
- Sciatica pain relief massage techniques.
- Resting for a short period during intense symptoms.
- Steroid injections to relieve pain.
- Decompression surgery to release pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Injury from sports or physical activity can also lead to shooting pains in the leg. A spinal injury could compress your sciatic nerve, leading to radiating pains through the hip to the leg. Leg injuries, meanwhile, can also cause painful strains and/or sprains.
The type of injury treatment you need depends on the extent and severity of your injury. Minor strains and sprains can be treated at home with rest, ice, compression and elevation techniques. More serious injuries may need medical attention.
4. Referred pain
Not all shooting pains originate in the leg, even though this is where you feel the most discomfort. This is known as referred pain; discomfort is caused by an injury in one part of your body, but felt somewhere else.
Sciatica is a type of referred pain, but it’s not the only one. Shooting leg pains can also be referred from the hip or sacroiliac joints.
Referred pain treatments
To treat referred pain, you’ll need to find out where your pain originates. Diagnostic imaging techniques like CT scans and X-rays may be used to unearth the cause of your referred pain if it’s not obvious.
When you know what’s causing your leg pain, your doctor can recommend the right treatment. This may include back and spine treatments if your pain is originating from a disc, joint, or muscle in the back.
5. Peripheral arterial disease
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a less common cause of shooting pains in the leg, affecting just over 5% of the population . Fatty deposits in the arteries can restrict the blood flow to your leg muscles, causing pain in the calves.
PAD shooting pains commonly start when you exercise and stop when you rest. This is known as intermittent claudication, and differentiates it from other types of shooting pain, which may happen even at rest. The more intensely you exercise, the more pain you’ll feel .
If you have PAD, you may also have:
- Hair loss on your legs and feet.
- Leg weakness or numbness.
- Ulcers on your legs and feet.
- Leg muscle shrinkage.
Peripheral arterial disease treatment
PAD is often treated through lifestyle changes, such as eating healthily, getting enough exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, and losing weight (if you’re overweight).
Becoming healthier can help break down fatty deposits in the blood vessels and improve symptoms of PAD. But if these lifestyle changes don’t work, medication and surgery can also help improve circulation to the legs.
6. Peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy happens when the nerves in the hands, feet, arms, and/or legs are damaged, resulting in shooting pains around the body. It’s most commonly associated with diabetes, as high blood sugar levels can cause nerve damage.
If you have peripheral neuropathy, you may also experience:
- Tingling in the hands or feet.
- Weakening muscles.
- Loss of balance.
Peripheral neuropathy treatments
Treatments depend on the underlying cause. For example, if you’re diabetic, you’re less likely to experience peripheral neuropathy if your blood sugar levels are well-controlled .
Treatments may also be recommended based on your symptoms. Physiotherapy can help with muscle weakness, while shooting pains stemming from nerve damage may be treated with specific medications.
7. Cauda equina syndrome
Cauda equina syndrome is a serious type of spinal stenosis that can lead to permanent motor problems if left untreated. It happens when the nerves at the bottom of the spine are compressed at the same time, making it difficult to control your bladder or bowels.
If you have sciatica-like shooting pains in both legs (rather than just one) or numbness around your genitals, this may indicate cauda equina syndrome, so it’s important to seek urgent medical attention.
Cauda equina syndrome treatment
Cauda equina syndrome needs urgent treatment. Lumbar decompression surgery is often used to release pressure on the nerves.
Shooting leg pains: specific and additional symptoms
Shooting pains in the leg are often accompanied by other symptoms. The chart below shows the possible diagnoses for each additional symptom alongside shooting leg pains.
This list isn’t exhaustive, so it’s important to seek medical attention if your back pain is undiagnosed.
|Pain comes and goes
|Lower leg shooting pain
|Upper leg shooting pain
|Shooting pain when lying down
|Peripheral arterial disease
|Cauda equina syndrome
Shooting pains in right vs left leg
If you have shooting pains in one leg and not the other, it’s likely that the cause of your pain is relatively benign (though it can still be uncomfortable and even debilitating). Whether your pain is felt in the right or left leg doesn’t indicate any particular condition.
If the pain lasts more than a few minutes and there’s no injury, it’s likely that the sciatic nerve in one of your legs has become trapped.
Shooting leg pains in pregnancy
Leg cramps and sciatica are both common in pregnancy . So it’s likely that any shooting leg pains in pregnancy are down to one of these conditions, especially if you don’t have any other symptoms.
However, it’s important to ask your midwife about any symptoms that are concerning you. You can also find out about the difference between getting an epidural for labour pain and epidural injections for back pain.
How are shooting pains in the leg diagnosed?
Because there are so many possible causes of shooting pains in the leg, it’s important to get a diagnosis if your pains are getting worse. Diagnosis is usually determined by:
- Your current health status.
- Your medical history.
- Physical examinations and/or tests (such as the straight leg raise test for sciatica).
- Diagnostic imaging (such as CT scans, X-rays, or MRI scans).
Harley Street Specialist Hospital can provide a same-day assessment and diagnosis of your leg pain. This enables you to skip the NHS waiting lists and get faster access to the treatment you need.
When should I be worried about leg pain?
Most of the time, shooting pains in the leg are nothing to be concerned about. They usually stem from relatively short-term conditions like sciatica, cramp, or injury.
But sometimes shooting pains can be a symptom of a more concerning underlying condition, such as peripheral artery disease or cauda equina syndrome. This may be more likely if you experience other symptoms, such as:
- Numbness around the genitals.
- Sciatica in both legs.
- Loss of bladder and/or bowel control.
- Ulcers on your legs and/or feet.
- Unexplained hair loss on your legs.
If you have any of these symptoms alongside shooting leg pains, seek immediate medical help.
Get rapid specialist care from Harley Street Specialist Hospital
Harley Street Specialist Hospital is home to the UK’s largest pool of pain management consultants. So whether you’ve had shooting pains in your leg for a long time, or they seem to be getting worse and you’re not sure why, our team can help.