Leg Cramps at Night – Why They Happen, How to Stop Them
Few things can jolt you out of a restful sleep like twisting, tightening leg cramps. If you've ever had one, you know what I mean. It feels like someone has grabbed onto each end of your muscle and twisted it into some new and exciting shape. They most often occur in the calves, but it is not out of the question to have leg cramps in your feet or thighs.
If you are one of the 60 percent of American adults (and 7 percent of children) who experience leg cramps, you know how disruptive they can be. Sorry, ladies, but research suggests women are more likely than men to have leg cramps. As you age, your risk of leg cramping also increases. Roughly 33 percent of people older than 69 get them and once you are over 80, your risk increases to 50 percent.
The good news (as if there is such a thing when it comes to leg cramps) is that only 20 percent of sufferers are bothered enough by their leg cramps to seek medical treatment for the condition.
Leg cramp signs and symptoms
Sometimes called a “Charley Horse,” the official medical term is nocturnal leg cramping. Medical professionals will tell you a leg cramp is the sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of the muscles in your leg. That uncontrolled (and unwanted) contraction can cause severe pain and make it nearly impossible to use the part of your leg where it's happening.
Most leg cramps occur in the calf muscle. It stretches from the back of your knee to your heel. However, it is not out of the question to feel cramping and tightening in your hamstrings (back of the thigh) or your quadriceps (front of the thigh).
More good news! Most leg cramps resolve on their own within 10 minutes. The bad news is, the pain and soreness from a leg cramp can last for up to 24 hours.
What causes leg cramps at night?
The sad truth is, experts are unsure what causes nighttime leg cramping. Some research suggests it may be hereditary, especially if the problem begins in childhood, persists into adulthood, and occurs frequently. While most experts agree there is no absolute answer to the underlying causes of leg cramps, some have suggested triggers that can make them more likely.
- Inactivity or insufficient activity. Our muscles are designed to work hard. They need to be stretched to stay healthy. Sitting for long periods can increase your chances of having nighttime leg cramping. This includes people who work in front of a computer or in an otherwise stationary position for 8 or more hours each day.
- Over-activity. Some people take the phrase “go hard or go home” a little too seriously. While it is admirable to get – and stay – in shape, there is such a thing as too much physical activity. When you go at it a little too hard at the gym, or engage in rigorous physical work for extended periods, you can almost bank on nocturnal leg cramps striking later.
- Sitting improperly. We already mentioned that sitting too much is a recipe for disaster. Certain positions also make your legs prone to cramping later. Sitting with your legs crossed, or with your toes pinched tightly in high heels (we’re talking to you, ladies), can cause cramping.
- Prolonged standing. Certain jobs and other responsibilities may have you on your feet for hours at a time. Unfortunately, this is another trigger for leg cramping. Sitting down for at least a few minutes each hour can help reduce the risk.
- Pregnancy. Hormones shift and fluctuate throughout pregnancy, as your body changes to accommodate that little person growing inside. Pregnancy is a miracle, but it also is a major contributor to leg cramping. Chances for leg cramps increase during the last six months of pregnancy.
- Certain medications. Statins (used to treat high cholesterol) and diuretics (used to lower blood pressure) are two of the worst offenders for causing leg cramping. Birth control pills and drugs to treat osteoporosis or asthma also can trigger them. Prescription estrogen, used by some women to ease menopause symptoms, is another common cause.
- Drinking alcohol. Scientists suspected for years that consuming alcoholic beverages was a risk factor for nocturnal leg cramping. A 2018 study provided confirmation of their suspicions.
How to prevent nighttime leg cramps
Our bodies need a restful night of sleep for many reasons. Nighttime leg cramps are debilitating and can interrupt your sleep regularly. There are ways to help reduce your chances of experiencing them too often (if at all). Practicing self-care and eliminating some bad habits are responsible ways to prevent nighttime leg cramping.
- Stay hydrated. Did you know that muscles are comprised of 79 percent water? Muscles need ample hydration to function properly. Staying hydrated throughout the day is the best way to help prevent nighttime leg cramps. Aim for at least 6 glasses of water throughout the day, more on hot days or while exercising.
- Replenish necessary minerals. Becoming dehydrated when you sweat is not the only concern. Your body also loses important electrolytes, which can contribute to leg cramping later. Consuming sports drinks designed to replenish electrolytes is helpful. Dieticians also recommend eating bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, yogurt, and nuts. These foods are rich in muscle-friendly minerals like potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
- Stretch before bed. There is never a wrong time to get up and stretch your legs, especially if you sit a lot during the day. Stretching before bed is a must if you want to avoid painful cramping while you sleep. Several different stretches can help. If you suffer from calf cramping, a standing calf stretch works best. To perform it: stand facing the wall with your elbows straight and both hands flat on the wall at chest level. One leg should be forward with your knee bent, and the other leg should be back and straight. Make sure both feet are in contact with the floor. Lean toward the wall and hold the stretch for at least 10 seconds, with a max stretch time of 30 seconds if you can tolerate it. Do 2 to 3 stretches per leg.
- Ride a stationary bike. Aim for five minutes of easy peddling before bedtime. It warms up your leg muscles and loosens them a bit, helping to reduce the chances of cramping.
- Change your sleeping position. Sorry, stomach sleepers. Sleeping with your toes pointing downward (away from your head) can contribute to leg cramping. It interrupts blood flow and allows blood in the lower part of your leg to become stagnant. Sleeping on your back or side, with your legs bent at the knees, is the best positioning.
- Untuck those sheets. It may look neat but sleeping with your sheets firmly tucked into the bed or with heavy bedding on your legs can restrict leg movement. Make sure you untuck the sheets and use a blanket or comforter light enough to help keep your toes pointing upward during the night.
- Wear supportive shoes. If you stand or walk for long periods, it is essential to have supportive, comfortable shoes. Flip flops and heels may look fashionable, but they can contribute to painful leg cramps. Poorly fitting shoes strain the nerves and muscles in your feet and legs, leaving you more prone to cramping.
5 tricks for stopping a nighttime leg cramp in progress
Nocturnal leg cramping is rarely a sign of a serious medical condition. That does not make them any easier to tolerate when they happen. Here are five tricks to help ease the pain so you can get back to sleep.
Massage the affected area
Humans tend to rub something when it hurts. As it turns out, we have that instinct for a reason. It works. Moderately massaging the muscle that is cramping can help to relax it while soothing discomfort. Gently knead the area that hurts with both hands to help loosen it.
Stretch it out
Just like you stretched before bedtime, stretching a muscle that is actively cramping can help relieve the pain. If the cramping is in your calf, loop your bedsheet (or a blanket) around your foot and gently stretch your toes in an upward motion.
Lunge forward with the leg that is not cramping, using the nighttime stretching movement we discussed earlier. Use the wall to balance yourself if necessary.
Walk on your heels
It may sound odd, but this movement stimulates the muscles opposite the calf, which can encourage the calf to relax.
Moist heat is helpful for tight, cramped muscles. Apply a hot, damp towel, hot water bottle, or heating pad to the affected area. If the cramping is extensive, soaking in a warm bath can help.
If you find your leg muscles are sore the day after a nighttime cramping incident, over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers can help. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen can relieve tenderness and help resolve any inflammation in the affected area. Acetaminophen also works for pain relief. Just be cautious about over-using these treatments, because they can lead to other medical problems. Frequent leg cramp sufferers may want to consider using an all-natural remedy instead.
Magnesium: the miracle leg cramping cure?
Magnesium is sometimes suggested as a miracle cure for leg cramping. Some evidence supports its effectiveness in relieving leg cramps during pregnancy. The news is not as bright for everyone else. Magnesium was found to have little to no effect on leg cramping in the general population.
One of the only exceptions to this is for people who are magnesium deficient. Half of the US population falls into this category. One of the signs of magnesium deficiency in adults is muscle twitching and cramping. When a person is lacking in magnesium, it can cause a greater flow of calcium into the nerve cells. When that happens, muscle nerves become over-excited. Twitching and cramping can result. Your doctor can determine if a magnesium deficiency may be contributing to your nighttime leg cramping.
Natural solutions to nighttime leg cramps
There are several prescription medications approved for treating nocturnal leg cramps. These drugs are not without side effects. So maybe consider natural solutions to painful leg cramping that work well for some.
Some athletes and health gurus swear by apple cider vinegar as a solution for muscle cramping. It is rich in potassium, which can help prevent leg cramping. If you want to try it, dissolve 2 teaspoons in a dab of honey and drink it. This concoction is not going to be the best thing you ever tasted, but it may be worth it if it helps reduce your leg cramps. Be sure to use organic, unfiltered brands of apple cider vinegar only. They contain strands of protein, enzymes, and friendly bacteria that provide added health benefits.
Topical pain relievers are great at easing pain. The most effective brands use menthol as a main ingredient due to its effectiveness for mild to moderate muscle strains and pain. A product like Premiere’s Pain Spray Roll-On is ideal if you want to experience the benefits of menthol. Blended at 7 percent menthol, it provides almost immediate relief. The roll-on applicator makes it easy to apply evenly on your skin without wasting any product.
Acupressure is another popular treatment for leg cramps. It is so effective in its treatment of leg and other muscle cramps that healthcare professionals are actually advised to use it under certain circumstances. You can perform acupressure on yourself, making it an inexpensive natural solution. Press with your fingers on these three spots: (1) between your upper lip and your nose; (2) at the base of your calf on the leg that is cramping); and (3) on the top of your foot, between your big toe and second toe (on the leg with cramping).
Homeopathic treatments for leg cramping include magnesia phosphorica, which are pellets you dissolve under your tongue. Boiron is a reputable source for any homeopathic remedy. Recommended potencies are 6X or 30C. Some homeopathic pharmacies carry spray-on versions of magnesia phosphorica that can be absorbed through the skin.
A final word on leg cramping
If you made it all the way through this article, thanks for sticking with it! We have provided a lot of information and helpful solutions for preventing and treating painful nighttime leg cramps. Committing to a healthy lifestyle is a good first step to kicking those cramps to the curb. Quickly and safely resolving them when they occur is your second line of defense. Good luck!