Leg cramps: causes, diagnosis & treatment, and prevention

Last Updated : 09/15/20183 min read

What causes leg cramps?

Pain from leg cramps can wake you up in the middle of the night, reports a Harvard Medical School newsletter. Leg cramps happen when your muscles (usually calf muscles) contract on their own, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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It can be difficult to relax the muscles. These cramps commonly affect calf muscles and last from a few seconds to 15 minutes, the Mayo Clinic reports. Leg cramps can strike at any age, but they are likely to occur more often with age. Harvard Medical School notes that among people over age 60:

  • Almost half report having leg cramps
  • Around a third of these say they are awakened at night
  • About 15% report weekly episodes

What causes leg cramps?

According to the Harvard Medical School newsletter, research hasn’t shown what causes leg cramps for certain. The Mayo Clinic explains that causes of leg can include:

  • Dehydration
  • Prolonged sitting
  • Not enough of the minerals potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your diet
  • Certain medications, such as beta blockers or diuretics

Sometimes leg cramps also may be related to an underlying metabolic condition, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), diabetes, or other health conditions that disrupt your metabolism.

Is there information on how to stop leg cramps?

The Mayo Clinic suggests several steps you can try to stop leg cramps.

  • You can apply a hot or cold compress to your sore muscles at the first sign of a muscle spasm to ease the pain of leg cramps. You can use a hot cloth, a heating pad, a cold cloth, or an ice pack.
  • Stretching the affected muscle can also help stop leg cramps. For example, if your calf is cramping, you could pull your foot upward with your hand to stretch the calf muscle.
  • Try gently massaging the cramped muscle to help stop leg cramps.
  • If your leg pain doesn’t improve, you may want to take an over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, if your doctor approves.

There aren’t any medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help with typical leg cramps, according to Harvard Medical School.

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What can I do to help prevent leg cramps?

To help stop leg cramps before they start, the Mayo Clinic offers the following tips.

  • Perform stretching or other light exercises, such as riding a stationary bike for a few minutes before bed may help prevent leg cramps while you’re sleeping.
  • Make sure that you drink enough liquid to avoid dehydration. It helps your muscles contract and relax more easily. Increase your liquid intake when you exercise.
  • Loosen or untuck the bedsheets and other covers at the foot of your bed if you experience nocturnal leg cramps.

Other treatments that the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) mentions include:

  • A vitamin B supplement
  • Certain medications called calcium-channel blockers
  • While there is some evidence suggesting quinine is effective in reducing the frequency of leg muscle cramps, the risks associated with its use can be significant, according to Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

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