What are nocturnal leg cramps?
Leg cramps are sometimes called charley horses or muscle spasms. They happen when your leg muscles tighten and it is hard to relax them. Leg cramps come and go, sometimes for hours, and usually occur at night. They mostly affect the lower legs, but can also happen in your feet or thighs.
How are leg cramps diagnosed?
There are other conditions that cause symptoms similar to leg cramps. Your provider can review your symptoms to be sure you have leg cramps. You may need tests to rule out other conditions such as the following:
- Restless legs syndrome, an uncontrollable feeling that you need to move your legs.
- Claudication is leg pain when you exercise. It happens when blood doesn’t flow normally to your muscles.
- Myalgias are deep, aching muscle pains that are not related to nighttime or exercise.
Causes: It is unclear what causes leg cramps. They could be caused by tired muscles or damaged nerves. Some medicines may cause leg cramps such as Raloxifene (Evista), Naproxen (Naprosyn), and Teriparatide (Forteo), but this is uncommon. Leg cramps are more likely in older people, pregnant women, and people who have certain medical problems such as heart disease, nerve conditions, cancer, and liver or kidney problems.
How are leg cramps treated?
Stretching and exercise might be helpful and could keep you from having more leg cramps. Some medicines, like muscle relaxants may help, also seizure medications such as Gabapentin. Until recently, Quinine was the best available treatment for leg cramps, but the FDA has withdrawn the drug because of potential side effects. Supplements such as Magnesium, Ca, and B vitamins, Potassium can also be helpful. Your medical provider can work with you for a treatment plan.
Stretching exercises are commonly advised. However, there is a lack of good research evidence to prove that they work. One research study concluded that stretching exercises did reduce the number and severity of cramps, but another study did not confirm this. However, many doctors feel that regular calf stretching does help, it is worth trying if you are able to do the exercises. If it works, you will not need any tablets to prevent the cramps.
To stretch calf muscles, stand about 60-90 cm from a wall. Then, keeping the soles of your feet flat on the floor, bend forward and lean on the wall. You will feel your calf muscles stretch. Do this several times, each time for as long as you can manage. It may take a week or so of exercises before you notice an improvement. So, it is worth giving yourself a 2-4 week trial of regular calf stretching exercises to see if your cramps ease off. The cramps may not go completely, but their frequency and/or severity may reduce.
Posture of the Legs When Resting In Bed
Positions which prevent the calf muscle from shortening when you are asleep may help. The following are not proven treatments (from research studies), but some experts believe that they help to prevent cramps.
- Use a pillow to prop your feet up in bed while sleeping on your back.
- Hang your feet over the end of the bed while sleeping on your front.
- Keep blankets loose at the foot of your bed to prevent toes from pointing downward during sleep.
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Information provided on this website and in the Doctor’s Blog is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended as and does not substitute for medical advice. Please consult your health care professional for evaluation of your individual case.