Burning Legs and Feet at Night, When Lying Down, and While Running: Causes and Treatment

What causes burning legs

Burning legs and feet can make you pretty uncomfortable, not to mention interrupt your daily routine, especially if the problem occurs at night. Depending on the underlying cause, it may occur in a specific area of the leg only (e.g., above the knee), or affect the entire leg. Burning legs may occur alongside other symptoms such as numbness. Discussed herein are some of the most common cause of burning sensation in the legs.

Burning Legs Causes

Burning legs are usually a symptom of damage, infection, or injury to a sensory nerve. The duration of the burning sensation varies depending on the underlying cause and so does the exact location of the burning. Causes of burning legs include:

1. Peripheral Neuropathy

overview of the nervous system

One of the possible causes of burning legs is peripheral neuropathy (damage to the peripheral nerves).

Peripheral nerves connect and relay signals (messages) from your brain and spinal cord to the internal organs as well as muscles and skin in the legs, feet, hands, arms, mouth, and face.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when these nerves get damaged or destroyed and thus lose their function.

When that happens, the nerves became overactive and send pain signals to the brain when there is no pain-inflicting wound or skin damage. They might also not send a pain signal when there is something that usually causes pain, e.g., an injury.

Here are some common underlying factors for peripheral neuropathy and the often accompanying burning legs:

  • Diabetes. Both types 1 and 2 diabetes can cause peripheral neuropathy. This happens when the high level of blood sugar associated with diabetes causes nerve damage in the long-run. For cases involving diabetes, scientists use the term diabetic polyneuropathy.
  • Alcoholism. Alcoholism joins diabetes in the list of the two top causes of peripheral neuropathy, says the WebMD.
  • Use of certain medications. Peripheral neuropathy is often a side-effect of certain medications including chemotherapy drugs, metformin, amiodarone, isoniazid, HIV medicines, and Zoloft (Sertraline). Vitamin B6 overdose can also cause peripheral neuropathy.
  • Nerve injury. Physical injury to the peripheral nerves can also cause burning legs.
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is a rare autoimmune nerve disorder, whereby the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. The burning sensation in legs may be worse at night.
  • Viral infections. Shingles (herpes zoster) is one common culprit for peripheral neuropathy and thus burning sensation in lower legs.
  • Idiopathic. Some cases of peripheral neuropathy have no known cause.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Lyme disease. This causes a burning sensation in the feet and lower legs.
  • Chronic renal (kidney) failure.

Treatment of Peripheral Neuropathy

Treatment for peripheral neuropathy and the accompanying burning legs involves stopping further nerve damage by addressing the underlying cause. Addressing the symptoms is also helpful, especially for cases with no known cause. Here are some conventional treatment approaches:

  1. Control diabetes. For burning legs due to diabetes, treatment involves regulating Blood sugar levels through diet modification, medications, and insulin injection. Important also is to stop smoking, reduce alcohol intake, and control your weight through an appropriate exercise regime.
  2. Vitamin B12 intake. You can either take vitamin B12 tablets orally or get injections of the same.
  3. Change of medications. This is necessary if burning legs are a side effect of a given drug.
  4. Nerve pain relief medications. According to the NHS Choices, common painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are usually ineffective for peripheral neuropathy. Neuropathic pain agents such as amitriptyline, duloxetine, and Carbamazepine.

2. Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, can also cause a burning sensation in the legs. This is a chronic and progressive condition that commonly attack and damage the central nervous system.

The actual cause of MS is not yet known, but researchers believe that it begins when the body’s immune system attacks myelin. This is a protective fatty tissue layer that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers.

When attacked, myelin gets inflamed, with scar tissues and lesions. Consequently, the ability of the brain to send electrical impulses to the rest of the body is hampered. This may manifest itself in burning legs

Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

The symptoms vary greatly from one individual to another and between periods of the year, month or even day. They may also come and go during the early stages.

Fatigue and difficulty walking are the symptoms seen the most in patients. These two symptoms are estimated to manifest in about 80 percent of MS cases.

Symptoms seen in early stages of multiple sclerosis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Eyesight problems, including blurred and double vision, and color distortions.
  • Tightness in the belly or chest. You feel as though someone is hugging you tightly. According to WebMD, this feeling may become more severe after exercise, with changes in temperature, or at night.

In later stages, you are likely to see the following symptoms:

  • Weakened muscles. This coupled with a difficulty in balancing tends to make walking difficult.
  • Fatigue
  • Trembling
  • Slurred speech.
  • Abnormal sensations, ranging from numbness to tingling and burning legs and feet.
  • Memory loss.
  • Concentration and judgment problems.

Treatment of Burning Legs Due To Multiple Sclerosis

Burning legs due to multiple sclerosis usually get relieved when the condition is addressed. There is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis. Several treatments are however available to slow down the progression of the disease as well as reduce and shorten the relapses.

  1. Oral and injectable medications. Several medications are used for the treatment of the condition ranging from oral and injectable medications such as dimethyl-fumarate and Avonex respectively.
  2. Intravenous (IV) infusion drugs such as alemtuzumab may also be prescribed.
  3. NSAIDs can also be used to control myelin inflammation, says the RightDiagnosis.com. Examples are Ibuprofen and Naprosyn.
  4. Medicated gels and creams. Sold over the counter, these topical preparations can as well help to block and stop burning sensation in the legs, feet, hands or arms. Some contain capsaicin while others contain lidocaine.

Because of the substantially varying symptoms of multiple sclerosis, treatment approaches also differ from one patient to another.

3. Blood Vessel Disorders

woman walking on the beach

Burning legs that occur while running, walking, or doing any other exercise can be indicative of a problem with how blood is supplied to your legs.

Here are some possible underlying causes:

Peripheral Artery Disease

One common underlying culprit for burning legs is a condition known as Peripheral artery disease (PAD).

As the name suggests, PAD is characterized by the narrowing of the arteries occurring outside the heart and brain. There are two possible underlying causes of peripheral artery disease:

  • Raynaud’s syndrome: The condition is characterized by intermittent spasms of the blood vessels, which then causes them to narrow down.
  • Atherosclerosis: This refers to the accumulation of fatty deposits or plaque in the walls of the arteries.

Some conditions and lifestyle choices may put you at higher risk of PAD including:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Atherosclerosis
  • High cholesterol levels

If caused by PAD, burning legs will stop when you stop moving or exercising. This is due to reduced demand for blood in the muscles.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis, or just DVT, can also cause a burning sensation in one leg. The condition occurs when a blood clot forms inside a vein occurring deep inside the body following a long period of inactivity. Long car rides and flight are common causative factors.

According to Benjamin Wedro, MD, an emergency physician practicing at Gundersen Clinic, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, deep vein thrombosis cause the affected leg to swell and turn bluish.

The burning sensation kicks in slowly over the course of a few hours.

4. Restless Leg Syndrome

sleeping woman - Restless Leg Syndrome makes it hard to sleep

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) can as well cause burning legs.

The name is derived from the irresistible urge to move your legs, especially at night, associated with the condition. This is coupled with uncomfortable sensations in your legs and sometimes arms, face, or chest.

About the sensation, some people speak of burning, tingling, or itchy sensation in the legs. Others describe the feeling as “creepy-crawly” while others liken the feeling in their legs to fizzy water bubbling inside their blood vessels.

Some cases of restless leg syndrome have no known causes, but RLS has been linked to the following factors:

  • Low levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in the brain
  • Iron deficiency.
  • Chronic health conditions including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, underactive thyroid gland, fibromyalgia, and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Pregnancy. According to NHS Choices, RLS is seen more common during pregnancy. The symptoms typically go away within four weeks of delivery.

The following factors can trigger the onset of restless leg syndrome, while not causing it per se:

  • Certain medications, especially antihistamines and those used to treat depression, high blood pressure (calcium blockers) and bipolar disorder (antipsychotics).
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Lack of exercise

Treatment of restless leg syndrome and any burning legs sensation associated with it may involve the prescription of medications such as dopamine agonists (e.g. ropinirole), painkillers, hypnotics such as loprazolam (to help you sleep), and Levodopa. Calm Legs Restless Legs Relief is a great natural product for RLS alleviation.

Home remedies for RLS

For burning legs due to RLS, the following home remedies and tips can help:

  1. Massage your legs
  2. Take a hot bath before bed.
  3. Apply a cool compress (washcloth dampened with cool water) on your legs when RLS kicks in.
  4. Take on mind-distracting activities such as reading a novel, watching TV, etc.
  5. Make love. According to the WebMD, making love has been found to ease restless leg syndrome by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain.
  6. Walk around or stretch your legs.
  7. Exercise regularly.
  8. Cut down on caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco in the evening hours, if not stay away from these (especially smoking) completely.

5. Other Possible Causes of Burning Legs:

  • Sunburn
  • Chemical and heat burns
  • Back problems, especially sciatica (inflammation of the sciatic nerve). This affects one leg and the burning sensation or pain can extend or the way down to the feet and toes.
  • Electrolyte imbalance. Burning legs can occur when the balance of minerals such as magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium is hampered. Factors such as dehydration, kidney disease, diarrhea, and use of certain medications can cause this.
  • Cancer.
  • Meralgia paresthetica. This describes a condition where the lateral cutaneous nerve becomes trapped and compressed. It may be to blame for a burning sensation in the outer thigh.