Why Do I Have Leg Cramps at Night and How Do I Stop It?

Many people experience leg cramps at night. It can prevent one from having a good night’s sleep because it is uncomfortable and painful. These rapid muscle spasms or contractions are usually felt in the thighs, feet, and calves. They can happen soon after a person falls asleep or before waking up in the morning and the cramping can last for up to a few minutes. When the cramping stops, the muscles remain tensed and tight and can be sensitive to touch and movement.

Leg Cramps vs. Restless Leg Syndrome

Very often, people think that this is one and the same health problem. However, they are completely different. Although both nocturnal leg cramps and restless legs syndrome tend to happen to you at night or when you’re at rest, restless legs syndrome doesn’t cause the severe pain. Restless legs syndrome is uncomfortable, but not agonizing. It’s a crawling sensation that makes you want to move your legs. When you do move, the restlessness stops, but there is still discomfort. For instance people experience greater pain when they try to move their legs during cramps whereas in the case of restless leg syndrome, people feel relieved when they move their legs.

Potential Causes of Leg Cramps

Even though the precise reason for leg cramps is not yet discovered, some scientists believe that specific health problems, conditions, and activities can cause this painful experience. These are some of them:

  • Pregnancy

  • Injury

  • Dehydration

  • Magnesium deficiency

  • Potassium deficiency

  • Kidney disease

  • Calcium deficiency

  • Muscle overload

  • Poor blood circulation

  • Thyroid gland problems

  • Extensive exposure to low temperatures

  • Some pharmaceutical drugs

What causes leg cramps?

Some leg cramps happen for no known reason and they are called “idiopathic” cramps. “Secondary” leg cramps are a symptom or complication of a more serious health condition. The primary cause of idiopathic leg cramps is up for debate. Possible causes of them include:

  • Involuntary nerve discharges.

  • Restriction in the blood supply.

  • Stress.

  • Too much high-intensity exercise.

Women who are pregnant often have leg cramps during the day and at night.

Possible causes for leg cramps at night (nocturnal leg cramps) include but not limited to:

  • Sitting for long periods of time.

  • Overusing the muscles.

  • Standing or working on concrete floors.

  • Sitting improperly.

  • Dehydration

  • Kidney disease

  • Muscle overload

  • Poor blood circulation

  • Thyroid gland problems

  • Extensive exposure to low temperatures

Leg cramps are not likely to cause:

  • Broken bones.

  • Fainting.

  • Nausea.

  • Numbness.

Can certain medications cause leg cramps?

Drugs have side effects. It’s possible that a prescription you’re taking could be causing your leg cramps. In that case, work closely with your healthcare provider to determine the pros and cons of the medication vs. its side effects. It’s possible that your healthcare provider may be able to put you on a different medication that doesn’t have leg cramps as a side effect.

What medical problems can cause leg cramps?

Sometimes leg cramps happen to you for no reason, but other times they could possibly be a sign or symptom of a health condition. If you have any of the following conditions, it’s possible that your leg cramps are a result of that condition. Also keep in mind that if you don’t already know if you have any of these conditions, your leg cramps may be a sign that you do. Always consult your healthcare provider if you think your leg cramps are a symptom of a more serious medical condition.

Leg cramps can possibly be a sign of lifestyle choices such as:

  • Dehydration: The lack of sufficient water in the body.

  • Alcoholism: Alcohol is a diuretic and causes severe dehydration if used in excess

  • Caffeine: Although less severe then alcohol, caffeine is also a diuretic..

Leg cramps can also possibly be a sign of serious conditions including:

  • ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/Lou Gehrig’s disease): Progressive neuromuscular disease.

  • Cardiovascular disease: Heart conditions caused by blood clots or diseased blood vessels. Also, coronary artery disease: The narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries.

  • Cirrhosis of the liver: Scarring of the liver.

  • Diabetes: A disease that prevents your body from properly using the energy from the food you eat.

  • Flat feet: The absence of the supportive arch in the foot.

  • Hypokalemia: Low potassium levels in your blood.

  • Kidney failure (hemodialysis): A condition in which one or both kidneys no longer work correctly.

  • Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease): The corrosion of the cartilage that protects your bones. Also, lumbar canal stenosis: A narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back.

  • Parkinson’s disease: A neurological movement disorder.

  • Peripheral artery disease: Narrowing of the arteries. Also, peripheral neuropathy: Damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves.

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can cause nerve damage, which may cause leg cramps.

What are the warning signs that leg cramps are coming?

Leg cramps happen very suddenly. There are no warning signs. There are, however, risk factors such as pregnancy and the use of medications that have leg cramps as a side effect.

Natural Methods for Treatment of Muscle Cramps

Regular physical activity

To relax the muscles and prevent cramping, avoid sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time and make sure you take a 10- to 30-minute walk on a daily basis.

Stretching

If you are experiencing a leg cramp, begin to stretch the muscle and gently rub the area.

Drink more water

To prevent dehydration, you need to drink enough water throughout the day.

Acupuncture or massage

Acupuncture and massage are known to have a soothing and relaxing effect on the muscles, which directly deals with the root of the problem.

Intake more magnesium

Magnesium is an important nutrient which has the power to prevent muscle spasms. You can get it from eating more seeds and nuts or by rubbing the legs with magnesium oil. You can also opt for quality magnesium supplements.

Epsom salt bath

Epsom salt baths can be of great aid for people who have this problem. The soaking will soothe the muscles and supply the body with magnesium.

Immediate Relief for Leg Cramps

  • Move the leg if possible to better the circulation

  • Rub the area gently to relax it

  • Sit on the floor and extend the legs and flex the feet at the ankles and then drag the feet with the hands to stretch the muscles

  • Make sure you have a good airflow while you are sleeping, i.e. opt for quality blankets, pajamas, and sheets

What can I do to make leg cramps go away if they happen?

You might be finishing up an exercise routine, or you might be awakened in the middle of the night. In those moments there are, unfortunately, no magical injections that can instantly relieve your pain. Yet you want to get rid of a leg cramp the moment it strikes. Here are eight steps to take to possibly get rid of a leg cramp:

  1. Stretch. Straighten your leg and then flex it, pulling your toes towards your shin to stretch the muscles.

  2. Massage. Use your hands or a roller to massage the muscles.

  3. Stand. Get up. Press your feet against the floor.

  4. Walk. Wiggle your leg while you walk around.

  5. Apply heat. Use a heating pad or take a warm bath.

  6. Apply cold. Wrap a bag of ice in a towel and apply it to the area.

  7. Elevate. Prop up your leg after the cramp starts to feel better.

  8. Pain killers. As a last resort, taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen has been known to help with the pain.

What kinds of stretches help get rid of leg cramps?

Try this if your cramp is in your calf muscle: While standing (or sitting with your leg unfolded before you), straighten your leg and lift your foot until your toes are pointing at your shin. Pull on your toes if you are able to reach them. You could also try walking around on your heels.

What kinds of stretches help prevent leg cramps?

Try the following to prevent leg cramps in your calves: Stand about three feet (one meter) away from a wall. Lean forward. Touch the wall with your arms outstretched while keeping your feet flat. Count to five before you stop, and do it over and over again for at least five minutes. Repeat three times per day

What vitamins may help with leg cramps?

No vitamin is likely to help with a leg cramp 100% of the time. However, some experts do recommend that you take a vitamin B12 complex.

How can I reduce my risk of getting leg cramps?

Experts can’t promise that you’ll never have a leg cramp again, but there are some steps you can take that might reduce your risk!

  • Make sure that you stay hydrated – drink six to eight glasses of water each day. Reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake.

  • Adjust how you sleep. Use pillows to keep your toes pointed upwards if you sleep on your back. If you lie on your front, try hanging your feet over the end of the bed. Both positions can keep you in a relaxed position.

  • Gently stretch your leg muscles before you go to sleep.

  • Keep blankets and sheets loose around your feet so that your toes are not distorted.

  • Wear shoes that fit you well and support your feet.

  • Perform frequent leg exercises.

  • Stretch your muscles before and after you exercise.

  • Experiment with mild exercise right before bed. Walk on the treadmill or ride a bicycle for a few minutes.

The pain from nocturnal leg cramps can be excruciating. Hopefully this article gave you some ideas on how to prevent leg cramps from disturbing your sleep.

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Source: Best Folk Medicine Cleveland Clinic

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