When the muscles in the leg become painful and tight, this is a condition called leg cramps. It is harmless and can affect any part of the leg, such as the thigh and feet. Leg cramps can be idiopathic, secondary, or nocturnal. Leg cramps at night happen in three out of four cases, but why do they happen? Here is everything there is to learn about leg cramps, its causes, treatment, and prevention.
Types of Leg Cramps
There are three types of leg cramps, namely:
1. Idiopathic Leg Cramps
This type of leg cramp happens for no apparent reason. It usually goes away after 10 minutes. Leg cramps of this type usually affect women more than men.
2. Secondary Leg Cramps
Secondary leg cramps occur as a complication or symptom of an existing health condition. Causes of a secondary leg cramp include the following:
- Overexerted Muscles During an Exercise
- Liver Disease
- Medications Like Statins
3. Nocturnal Leg Cramps
Leg cramps at night are called nocturnal leg cramps and affect 60 out of 100 adults. It is also called Charley Horses and is quite painful. Nocturnal leg cramps commonly affect individuals over 50 years old, but can still affect children and younger adults.
A number of factors can cause nighttime leg cramps. Some of these include the following.
- Abnormal Activity of the Nerves. In electromyographic studies done, it shows that leg cramps are linked with an increase of abnormal firing of the nerves.
- Improper Position When Sitting. Sitting for long periods or with the legs crossed causes the muscles in the calf to shorten. This leads to leg cramps.
- Overexertion of Muscles. Excessive exercise can lead to overworked muscles and is linked to cramping in the leg muscles.
- Standing for Long Periods. Research claims that standing for long periods can lead to nocturnal leg cramps.
- Sedentary Lifestyle. When the muscles are not stretched on a regular basis, it may lead to cramping. Regular exercise should be done to stretch the muscles for it to function well.
- Shortened Tendons. Tendons connect muscles and bones. However, over time, the tendons tend to shorten which is a natural occurrence. Shortening of the tendons could likely lead to muscle cramps.
Leg cramps at night have also been associated with medical conditions as well as medications. Some of these include the following.
- Beta Agonists, Diuretics, and Statins
- Disorders of the Neuromuscular System Such as Myopathy and Neuropathy
- Electrolyte Imbalance
- Endocrine Disorder Such as Hypothyroidism or Diabetes
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Structural Disorders
Pain caused by leg cramps can be relieved by the following home remedies.
- Massage: Massaging the affected area can help loosen the tight or knotted muscles. Use both hands to knead the area gently.
- Stretch: For leg cramps, straighten the legs and flex the foot upwards. Stretching out the leg can help loosen the cramped muscles.
- Walk: Try walking on the heels to stimulate the muscles located opposite of the calf. Movement can help the muscles relax.
- Heat: Applying heat to the affected area can soothe and relax the tight muscles. A hot water bottle or hot towel may be applied to the area. Taking a hot shower can also work.
- Painkillers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs like naproxen and ibuprofen can help alleviate the pain or tenderness accompanied by cramps.
How to Stop Nocturnal Leg Cramps
Avoid nighttime leg cramps by doing the following.
- Drink lots of water for normal functioning of the muscles. The amount of water consumed in a day depends on the weather, medications taken, and one’s body weight.
- Stretch the legs, particularly the hamstrings and calves, right before bedtime. This reduces the severity as well as the frequency of leg cramps at night.
- Change one’s sleeping position regularly. Also, avoid sleeping with the feet pointing downwards, and instead sleep on the back. Add a pillow behind one’s knees, too.
- Use loose and light sheets that keep the toes and feet upright even while sleeping. Heavy sheets may push the feet downwards when sleeping.
- Choose footwear that supports the natural arch of the feet, especially for individuals with flat feet.
There is no medication to treat cramps. Instead, over-the-counter medications like painkillers are prescribed to help alleviate the pain usually associated with leg cramps. For pregnant women who experience leg cramps, studies claim that taking multivitamins may help prevent cramps.
Moreover, recent studies claim that vitamin B12, calcium channel blockers, and carisoprodol can help treat leg cramps. Exercising regularly can also help treat and prevent leg cramps from occurring.
Leg cramps can be alleviated with exercise, particularly exercise that target the affected muscle. Exercising in the day can reduce nocturnal leg cramps. These should be done one to three times a day for at least 5 to 10 minutes.
Stretch the calf muscles by standing on a step with the front half of the feet on the area. The heels should be hanging a little off the edge before it is slowly lowered at the level of the step. Hold the form for at least five seconds and lift the heels back to the initial position. Repeat this for at least ten times. Another method to stretch the muscles in the calf is to straighten the leg and tug the toes upwards.
When cramps do not go away even after regular exercise, then medication may be needed. For secondary leg cramps, treatment is targeted towards the underlying cause that leads to the cramps. For pregnant women, leg cramps usually disappear after birth.
With one meter away from the wall, stand with the feet flat on a sturdy surface. Stretch the arms and lean the arms against the wall. The hands should be placed flat against the wall with the heels set firmly on the ground. Maintain this position for at least five to ten seconds before returning to an upright position. Do this at least ten times.
Walk on one’s tiptoes for at least five to ten minutes a day. This help in stretching the muscles in the calves that may cramp up at night.