Leg Cramps at Night – What’s Up with That?
Do you ever wake up partway through your sleep with severe nighttime leg cramps? If so, you’re not alone. Doctors say that 60% of American adults (and 7% of children) get what are officially called “nocturnal leg cramps” -- what a lot of people refer to simply as “charley horses.”
Women are more likely than men to get them. Age is also a factor. An estimated 33% of us older than 69 (and half of us over 80) get them.
Luckily, though, only 20% of sufferers get symptoms bad enough to seek medical help.
Most often, this terrible leg pain at night attacks your calf muscle, which goes all the way down the back of your leg, from knee to ankle. Sometimes, though, it can strike the front (or the back) of a thigh.
Usually, the muscle will relax in less than 10 minutes. But if it’s been bad enough, your leg can feel sore for up to a full day afterward.
What Causes Leg Cramps at Night?
The truth is, experts don’t know the exact causes of nighttime leg cramps.
There is research to suggest they might be hereditary – especially if the problem starts in childhood and occurs frequently. But most experts say there’s no certain answer to what causes leg cramps at night.
Studies do find that certain factors increase your risk. For example:
Too little activity. Muscles need to work. In other words, you need to stretch them regularly. Sitting for long periods of time may increase your chances for nighttime cramping.
Too much activity. Overexertion, usually from rigorous exercise or out-of-the-ordinary physical work (like moving or heavy lifting) creates exhausted muscles. Nocturnal leg cramps often follow.
Improper sitting positions. Sitting with your legs crossed or your toes pinched and pointed (in high heels) can lead to cramping, too.
Prolonged standing. Standing for long periods of time will predispose you to leg cramps. So if your job requires you to be on your feet most of the time, try to sit down for at least a few minutes every hour.
Pregnancy. Those nine prenatal months are a major cause of nighttime leg cramps. In particular, during the last six months, pregnancy can lead to leg cramps just about any time of the day or night.
Some medications. Statins (used to lower cholesterol levels) are associated with leg cramps at night. So are diuretics (used to lower blood pressure), and birth control pills. Drugs used to treat osteoporosis and asthma can increase nocturnal cramping. And prescription estrogen (used to treat menopause symptoms) also ups your risk.
Drinking. A 2018 study confirmed what doctors had suspected for years: alcohol consumption is strongly associated with nocturnal leg cramps.
Are There Ways to Prevent Nighttime Leg Cramps?
Absolutely! If you’re wondering what to do for nighttime leg cramps, the answer is more than avoiding bad habits. You should take steps toward better self-care.
Drink plenty of fluid. Hydration encourages healthy muscle function, and that goes a long way in preventing nighttime leg cramps. So up your water to at least 6 full glasses daily. Drink even more when during hot weather and on days when you exercise, because you lose fluid when you sweat. (That helps explain why professional athletes and avid exercisers so often deal with cramps.)
Replenish necessary minerals. It’s not just water that you lose when you sweat. You also lose a lot of important electrolytes, and that can definitely contribute to leg cramping. Sports drinks are helpful. Dieticians also say to eat plenty of bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, yogurt and nuts – because they’re rich in muscle-friendly minerals that can help you avoid painful cramps.
Stretch your legs every night before bed. It’s not complicated. Here’s an easy way to do it. Stand with both feet flat on the ground, no more than shoulder width part. With one foot, step up on your toes while stepping back on your heel with the other foot. Then alternate. It should become a seamless movement from toes to heel, first on one foot and then the other. Keep up the alternating rhythm for 30-60 seconds. This simple exercise will stretch the front of your calves as well as your hamstrings (the back side of your calves), reducing the frequency and severity of your leg cramps. It’s a simple but effective answer for how to prevent nighttime leg cramps.
Ride a stationary bike. Even 5 minutes of easy peddling before bedtime can loosen your leg muscles and cut down on the chances of nighttime cramping.
Adjust your sleeping position. Here’s a good tip for how to stop nighttime leg cramps: Do NOT sleep with your toes pointing downward, away from your head. This allows blood to get stagnant in the lower part of your leg and the result can be cramping. So try sleeping on your back, if you can. Or on your side, with your legs bent at the knees.
Skip heavy or tucked-in bedding. They both tend to push your feet downward through the night. Instead, sleep under untucked sheets and a blanket or comforter light enough to let you easily keep your toes pointing upward through the night.
Wear good shoes. Inexpensive, badly-fitting shoes can strain the nerves as well as muscles in your feet and legs, leaving you more prone to cramps. This is especially important if you stand or walk for long periods of time at work. Good footwear means relief for nighttime leg cramps.
Is Magnesium a Good Nighttime Leg Cramps Treatment?
You may have heard that magnesium can help. There is evidence that 350-360 milligrams of magnesium daily can help relieve leg cramps in pregnant women. But the mineral has been found to be relatively ineffective in helping anybody else get relief for nighttime leg cramps. In fact, one recent study looked at the effect of magnesium (versus a placebo) in treating nocturnal leg cramps and found the mineral’s overall effect was insignificant.
On the other hand, some people with a history of nocturnal leg cramping say that this easy-to-find dietary supplement helps a lot.
About two-thirds of Americans tested are magnesium deficient. You’re at particular risk if you smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, eat processed foods, or take a prescription statin.
So it’s wise to add magnesium-rich foods to your diet. Here are some suggestions, with their per-serving magnesium content: almonds (80 mg); spinach (78 mg); cashews (74 mg); soy milk and shredded wheat cereal (61 mg each).
Unfortunately, your body can only absorb 30-40% of the magnesium you get from dietary intake – and absorption goes down as you age. So a supplement may be your best bet. Experts recommend 400-420 milligrams daily for men, and 310-320 milligrams daily for women.
Even if it doesn’t help your leg cramps, you might get some other benefits. Athletes, for example, use magnesium to help maintain performance. It has also been found useful in treating asthma, osteoporosis, migraine headache, and depression.
How to Stop Leg Cramps at Night – If and When They Happen
Luckily, nocturnal leg cramps are very rarely the sign of any serious medical condition. So when they happen, most doctors say to try a basic treatment of nighttime leg cramps.
Massage your leg. Rubbing a charley horse comes naturally to most people in pain, and it’s not a bad idea. Moderate massage may help relax the muscle, and soothe the discomfort. Use both hands to gently knead the area that hurts. See if you can loosen the muscle enough to get relief.
Stretch. If the cramp is in your calf, straighten your leg. Even better, reach down and pull your toes up, toward your head. This tends to work well and quickly.
Lunge forward. With the leg that isn’t cramping, lunge forward to stretch out the cramped leg behind you.
Walk on Your Heels. This can stimulate the muscles opposite your calf, allow the calf itself to relax.
Apply heat. Warmth soothes tight, cramped muscles. Apply a hot towel, hot water bottle, or heating pad to the affected area. Taking a warm bath or shower is good, too.
Use an over-the-counter painkiller if your leg remains sore the next day. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve tenderness after the cramp itself is gone. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can work well, too. (Do be careful because, used too often, these medications can lead to medical problems. So if your cramping comes quite frequently, it’s better to choose an all-herbal, natural remedy for nighttime leg cramps.
Can You Get Relief from a Natural Cure for Nighttime Leg Cramps?
Yes, many people find that all-natural nighttime leg cramp cures work very well.
Apple cider vinegar, for example, is known to relieve all sorts of cramping, from menstrual cramps to nighttime leg cramps. Some naturopaths think that’s because cramping results from a potassium deficiency. And potassium-rich apple cider vinegar can close the nutritional gap. Dissolve 2 teaspoons in a little bit of honey and drink it down. It may not taste terrific, but it just might relieve your leg cramps and keep them away for the rest of the night. Make sure to use an organic, unfiltered brand. And check the label to be sure it contains “mother” (strands of proteins, enzymes and friendly bacteria that provide the real benefit).
Topical herbal pain relievers also work very well. The best ones use menthol as their active ingredient. The higher the percentage of menthol, the more relief you can expect. So a product like Premiere’s Pain Spray Roll-On is good. Blended at 7% menthol, it provides almost immediate relief. And the roll-on applicator allows you to apply it right where you need it, without waste or dripping. There are also pain relief sprays, patches and creams that you can check out at better natural food and cosmetic stores.
Himalayan Sea Salt is getting very popular as a natural way to relieve leg cramps (and just about any other form of muscle tension). It’s available at most grocery stores and isn’t too expensive. Get a bottle that holds small nuggets rather than finely ground salt. When a cramp happens, put a small nugget on your tongue. It will probably taste good at first. Enjoy that. Then, as soon as it begins to taste unpleasant, the salt has done its job. You can spit out any remainder in your mouth. Himalayan salt helps balance electrolytes, which is why it stops the cramping. If this natural remedy works well for you, then consider adding a small amount of Himalayan salt to all your drinking water. It will boost your electrolyte levels and work as a preventative approach to nighttime leg cramps.
Acupressure is another popular remedy. No need for expensive appointments. You can easily and safely do it yourself by pressing 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 has the cramp); and/or (3) on the top of your foot, between your big toe and second toe, on the leg with the cramp.
Homeopathy offers magnesia phosphorica, which also can help. Let the pellets dissolve under your tongue. (Boiron is an especially reputable source for any homeopathic remedy. Good potencies would be 6X or 30C.) If you prefer, some homeopathic pharmacies carry a spray-on version of magnesia phosphorica, which is absorbed through the skin.
What’s the Takeaway?
Nighttime leg cramps are very painful, but not dangerous. Avoiding bad lifestyle choices can reduce your chances of getting them, or at least reduce how often they strike. There are activities, exercises, foods, and nutritional supplements that may provide you with even more protection. And when a cramp does happen, you can actually get fast relief – if you know what to do and what natural remedies to keep on-hand.
Here’s to your health!