Leg Cramps at Night: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Nighttime Leg Cramps: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Have you ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a strong cramp in your leg that felt as if it was going to tear your muscle apart? A nighttime spasm or tightening of a muscle is a common, usually harmless, occurrence that most often affects muscles of the calf, thigh or foot.

It can cause a lot of pain and steal away a chunk of your precious sleep. Although no one is immune to them, cramps are more common in older people, and about 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 experience them regularly.

There are some simple steps you can take to prevent the cramps and ease their onset. In some cases, it’s also important to look for the underlying cause and address it.

What Causes Muscle Cramps?

In many cases, the reason for these painful contractions is unknown – in the medical jargon, the condition is referred to as ‘idiopathic leg cramps’.

Other reasons could be:

  • Extreme exercise – you may have been exercising a lot and the muscles got tired, so they started to spasm.
  • Pregnancy –   pregnancy can be associated with nighttime cramps, especially in the later stages.

In some cases, however, cramps are a symptom of another problem you might not even be aware of. Some of the conditions that can cause leg cramps include:

Dehydration – when your body loses a lot of fluids, the salt levels get depleted, which can trigger the muscles in the legs to contract. Usually, the reason for dehydration is not drinking enough, but severe diarrhea and vomiting can cause it as well. Make sure you are aware of the 7 warning signs of dehydration.

Deficiency in potassium, calcium or other minerals (such as magnesium).

Specific medical conditions such as kidney disease, thyroid disease (see the signs in this post), liver problems and multiple sclerosis.

Conditions that affect the blood flow, for example, peripheral arterial disease.

Some infections or exposure to toxins – for example, high levels of lead or mercury can result in leg cramps. You may want to try this heavy metal detox smoothie.

Cramps can also be a side effect of some medicines you might be taking. Examples include:

  • Diuretics
  • Medications to lower high cholesterol (statins)
  • Some anti-psychotic drugs
  • Birth control pills
  • Steroids

How to Deal with Cramps When they Happen?

The sudden pain can be excruciating and it’s good to have a technique you can easily employ.

Stretch and massage the area. You can also try some stretching positions: bend your foot at the ankle, so that your toes are pointing toward the shin. Initially, this might be very painful, but the pain will subside.

Doing stretching exercises is also one of the 70 habits featured in my e-book 70 Powerful Habits For A Great Health which will guide you how to take positive steps to improve your wellness and overall health.

Take a warm shower or a bath. For a quicker relief, use a heating pad.

Some experience pain relief if they apply some ice or a cold pack.

Walk around and jiggle your painful leg. Try walking on your heels, which will stretch the muscle.

Painkillers usually don’t act fast enough to help with cramping. You can take paracetamol to ease the muscle tenderness which can persist for up to 24 hours after the cramp occurs.

The Best Ways to Prevent Muscle Cramps

If you think that cramps are brought on by your medications, discuss it with your doctor to see if there are any alternatives.

If you experience some other symptoms that might be worrying you, get it checked out to exclude any possible secondary reasons.

Make sure you drink enough water and don’t drink alcohol in excessive amounts.

Eat a balanced diet and ensure you get enough potassium, calcium and magnesium (make sure you are aware of the warning signs of magnesium deficiency). You might need to consider taking a supplement if you feel you are not getting enough vitamins and minerals with your daily diet.

Many doctors believe that stretching exercises can ease the frequency and severity of the cramps. The research on the subject is limited and the findings non-conclusive; however, it might be a good approach to try.

Stretching of the calf muscles

Stretch the affected muscles 3 times a day for about 5 minutes. Always stretch before and after exercise, and do the last session just before going to bed. It might take a few weeks before you notice any results, but persevere and you are likely to experience some improvement over time. To stretch the muscles:

Stand 60 to 90 centimeters from the wall.

Keep the soles of your feet on the floor and lean towards the wall.

Feel the muscles stretch and hold this position for 20 to 40 seconds.

Relax the muscles and then repeat again.

When to See a Doctor?

In most cases, nighttime cramps are just an annoyance and they quickly pass on their own. However, according to webMD you should see a doctor if you experience the following:

Severe and persistent cramping.

You think you had been exposed to a toxin such as lead.

You observe muscle weakness.

The cramping is preventing you from sleeping, which in turn affects your day to day life.

In the past, the medication quinine had been used as the last resort for treating leg cramps. It is no longer recommended as clinical studies did not prove its effectiveness. It also comes with potentially very serious side effects. Your doctor might consider other treatment options and/or ask you to keep a ‘sleep and cramp’ diary.

Nighttime leg cramps should not be mistaken for restless leg syndrome (RLS), which is a separate condition that presents with unpleasant feelings and sensations and an urge to move. Pain is not the main feature of RLS. However, RLS can sometimes be the cause of night cramps.

Read my other articles to learn how to naturally treat pain and to learn about the best exercises for your legs:
1. Top Exercises to Tone Your Legs and Butt At Home
2. Effective Yoga Stretches For Sciatic Nerve Pain Relief
3. Effective Treatments for Pulled, Strained or Torn Calf Muscle
4. The Top 16 Essential Oils to Relieve Pain and Inflammation

Medical Resources

Healthy and Natural World