Pain When Walking: What You Shouldn't Ignore

June 22, 2019

Pain when walking
Jonathan Thompson

Although it's generally seen as fairly low-impact, the reality is that walking is a very effective form of exercise and should be a part of your usual routine. However, like most — if not all — types of activity, walking brings with it the risk of pain and injury. If you experience pain when walking, what should you do about it? When you find that it hurts to walk, how do you know which pains can be ignored and which require medical attention?

Walking Mechanics

In order to best evaluate the pains you experience when walking, you first have to understand the mechanics involved. Each step that you take requires movement in almost every joint of your body to either keep you balanced or propel you forward. Your lower back, hips, knees, ankles and feet all deal with impact forces equal to about 1.5 times your body weight every time that your feet hit the ground. Similarly, the muscles and connective tissue that surround, support and move each of these joints are placed under repeated stress.

But how does this information help if you feel pain when walking? A basic knowledge of what parts of your body are involved and how they are affected will help you understand what pains are normal and which merit further investigation. For example, some stiffness in your calves or other involved muscles that develops in the 24 to 48 hours following your walk — known commonly as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) — is to be expected and will go away on its own within a week or so. Other types of pain, though, might present at different times and in different places — all of which will give you a clue as to what is going on. With all of this in mind, here a few things to consider when you discover that it hurts to walk.

Type, Timing and Location

While people tend to think of "pain" as just one thing, this sensation can actually take on many forms — each of which bears its own significance. A burning feeling in your muscles, for instance, is generally the result of increased levels of lactic acid — though this tends to only happen at higher working intensities. Despite any discomfort it might cause, this type of pain is part of your body's natural energy production and isn't a typically a cause for concern when it occurs during your walk.

Similarly, you may also experience dull, stiff pains in your joints and muscles. If this happens while you are walking, it's generally a sign that the affected tissue is irritated and starting to swell. At this point, its better to stop the activity altogether so that your muscles can rest. This type of inflammation can also develop in your tendons and muscles in the days following the activity. Usually, this is simply a result of over-use and will typically go away after a week or so. If the swelling doesn't subside with rest or even get's worse, see your doctor.

In contrast to the more subtle pains described above, it's also possible for you to experience sudden stabbing or tearing pains. These usually occur in your muscles or even bones and will be felt during your walk. If you experience this, stop the activity immediately and seek medical attention as this can indicate a pulled muscle or even a stress fracture.

Because walking is a fairly complex activity that places a number of stresses on your body, there are a variety of reasons why you might feel like it hurts to walk. In most situations, though, experiencing pain when walking is just a sign that your muscles are working harder than they're used to and that they need to rest. If the pain comes on suddenly and doesn't go away, it's best to check with your doctor.

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