Is it just a cramp — or something more serious? Here’s how to know the difference.

Symptom: Cramping or sudden contractions in your calf or thigh.

Possible problem: Did you just start an exercise regimen or suddenly cut back on one? Both can cause cramping. Other possible causes: too little calcium, magnesium or potassium in your diet, or dehydration from not drinking enough water or from taking certain medications, notably diuretics used to control high blood pressure.

What to do: For cramps in your calf or the back of your thigh, sit in a chair, straighten the leg that’s in pain, and point the top of your foot toward your head. For a cramp in the front of your thigh, stand holding a chair, bend your knee and pull your foot up toward your buttock. Massaging the cramped muscle can also help, or applying heat. To prevent cramps, stretch regularly and talk with your doctor about changing your diet and drug regimen.

Aching calves may signal a problem that needs a doctor’s attention. (Bigstock)

Symptom: Pain or numbness that radiates down a leg with tingling, burning or weakness, all of which worsens with movement.

Possible problem: A herniated or protruding disk, usually caused by arthritis of the spine, aging, injury or, in rare cases, a spinal tumor.

What to do: The pain usually subsides on its own within three months. In the meantime, try alternating the use of ice and heat, or take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) or an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic). Stretching can ease pain and help prevent its recurrence. If the pain is severe, spinal steroid injections or newer nerve-targeting drugs might help. Or try massage and acupuncture. Consider surgery only if you have severe symptoms or the pain lasts longer than 12 weeks.

Symptom: Pain, usually in both legs, with numbness, weakness or cramping that’s worse when you stand or walk and better when you sit or bend forward.

Possible problem: Compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots in your lower back (spinal stenosis), caused by arthritis, aging or an injury.

What to do: You might need an imaging test. Exercises to stretch and strengthen your back may help. Or try over-the-counter pain relievers, physical therapy, chiropractic care or acupuncture. Reserve surgery for severe, long-lasting pain.

Symptom: Pain or aching in your calves while walking.

Possible problem: The narrowing of the arteries that supply your leg muscles with blood (peripheral artery disease, or PAD), possibly caused by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking or excess weight.

What to do: Your doctor should check the pulses in your feet. If they’re not robust, you should have an exam that compares blood pressure in your arm with pressure at your ankle. Low pressure in your foot suggests poor circulation. And it may also mean that you need an ultrasound to diagnose the condition. PAD should be treated as aggressively as heart disease. That means a commitment to lifestyle changes (walking regularly, for example) and usually taking cholesterol and blood-pressure drugs, and aspirin or related drugs to prevent clots.

Symptom: Sudden pain in a calf or thigh accompanied by swelling, redness or warmth.

Possible problem: A blood clot in your leg (deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT), usually caused by dehydration, prolonged inactivity, pregnancy, birth-control pills, hormone therapy or certain types of cancer. Clots that break loose can be fatal if they reach your lungs; repeated clots that remain in your legs can cause skin ulcers.

What to do: Call your doctor or go to an emergency room. You’ll need an ultrasound and possibly a blood test and, if the clot may have traveled to your lungs, a chest CT scan. Blood-thinning drugs while you’re in the hospital and for months afterward might be necessary. Prevent clots by exercising regularly and losing excess weight. If you’re on a long trip, get up to stretch your legs every hour or so, or pump your feet back and forth while sitting.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.