Muscle cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions that occur in various muscles. These contractions are often painful and can affect different muscle groups.
Commonly affected muscles include those in the back of your lower leg, the back of your thigh, and the front of your thigh.
You may also experience cramps in your:
- abdominal wall
The intense pain of a cramp can awaken you at night or make it difficult to walk.
A sudden, sharp pain, lasting from a few seconds to 15 minutes, is the most common symptom of a muscle cramp. In some cases, a bulging lump of muscle tissue beneath the skin can accompany a cramp as well.
Causes of muscle cramps
Muscle cramps have several causes. Some cramps result from overuse of your muscles. This typically occurs while you’re exercising.
Muscle injuries and dehydration can also trigger cramps. Dehydration is the excessive loss of fluids in the body.
Low levels of any of the following minerals that contribute to healthy muscle function may also cause muscle cramps:
Low blood supply to your legs and feet can cause cramping in those areas when you exercise, walk, or participate in physical activities.
In some cases, a medical condition can cause muscle cramps. These conditions include:
- spinal nerve compression, which can cause muscle cramps in your legs when walking or standing
- kidney failure
- hypothyroidism, or low thyroid gland function
Other times, the cause of muscle cramps is unknown.
Muscle cramps are usually harmless and don’t require medical attention. However, you should see a doctor if your muscle cramps are severe, don’t improve with stretching, or persist for a long time. This could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
To learn the cause of muscle cramps, your doctor will perform a physical examination. They may ask you questions, such as:
- How often do your muscle cramps occur?
- Which muscles are affected?
- Do you take any medications?
- Do you drink alcohol?
- What are your exercise habits?
- How much liquid do you drink on a daily basis?
You may also need a blood test to check the levels of potassium and calcium in your blood, as well as your kidney and thyroid function. You may also take a pregnancy test.
Your doctor may order an electromyography (EMG). This is a test that measures muscle activity and checks for muscle abnormalities. An MRI may also be a helpful test. It’s an imaging tool that creates a picture of your spinal cord.
On occasion, a myelogram, or myelography, another imaging study, might be helpful.
Let your doctor know if you’re experiencing weakness, pain, or a loss of sensation. These symptoms can be signs of a nerve disorder.
Treatment options for muscle cramps
- a hot cloth
- a heating pad
- a cold cloth
Stretching the affected muscle can also alleviate the pain of muscle cramps. For example, if your calf is cramping, you could pull your foot upward with your hand to stretch the calf muscle.
If your pain doesn’t improve, try taking an over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. It may also help to stretch the sore muscles gently.
Muscle cramps can interrupt your sleep. If this happens, talk to your doctor about a prescription muscle relaxer. This medication helps relax your muscles and calm spasms.
Controlling the underlying cause of muscle cramps can improve your symptoms and ease spasms. For example, your doctor may recommend supplements if low calcium or potassium levels are triggering cramps.
Preventing muscle cramps
The simplest way to prevent muscle cramps is to avoid or limit the exercises that strain your muscles and cause cramps.
You can also:
- Stretch or warm up before participating in sports and exercising. Failure to warm up can result in muscle strain and injury.
- Don’t exercise right after eating.
- Lower your intake of food and drink that contains caffeine, such as coffee and chocolate.
- Make sure that you drink enough liquid to avoid dehydration. Your body loses more water when physically active, so increase your liquid intake when you exercise.
- Increase your calcium and potassium intake naturally by drinking milk and orange juice and eating bananas.
- Talk to your doctor about taking a vitamin supplement to ensure that your body receives the necessary supply of nutrients and minerals.
What’s Causing Your Leg Cramps at Night? Treatment and Prevention Tips
What causes leg and calf cramps at night
Imagine you’re lying down and your lower leg seizes. The pain is intense enough to make you want to scream. It doesn’t let up, and your muscle is hard to the touch. When you try to move your leg, it feels paralyzed. Sound familiar?
According to American Family Physician, nocturnal leg cramps affect up to 60 percent of adults. Sometimes referred to as muscle spasms or charley horses, they occur when one or more of the muscles in the leg tighten involuntarily.
Leg cramps most often affect the gastrocnemius muscle (calf muscle) which spans the back of each leg from the ankle to the knee. However, they can also affect the muscles at the front of each thigh (quadriceps) and the back of each thigh (hamstrings).
You can be awake or asleep when a leg cramp strikes. Most of the time, the muscle relaxes itself in less than 10 minutes. Your leg might feel sore or tender for up to a day afterward. Frequent calf cramps at night can disrupt your sleep.
Leg cramps during sleep are more common among women and older adults.
Nocturnal leg cramp causes
Experts don’t know exactly what causes leg cramps at night. There are, however, known factors that can increase your risk. In most cases, nocturnal leg cramps are idiopathic, which means their exact cause isn’t known.
Nighttime leg cramps may be related to foot position. We often sleep with our feet and toes extending away from the rest of our bodies, a position called plantar flexion. This shortens the calf muscles, making them more susceptible to cramping.
Other factors that may contribute to nighttime leg cramps include:
- Sedentary lifestyle. Muscles need to be stretched regularly to function properly. Sitting for long periods of time could make leg muscles more susceptible to cramping.
- Muscle overexertion. Too much exercise can create an overworked muscle and may be associated with muscle cramps.
- Improper sitting position. Sitting with your legs crossed or your toes pointed for long periods of time shortens the calf muscles, which could lead to cramping.
- Prolonged standing. Research suggests that people who stand for long periods of time at work are more likely to experience nocturnal leg cramps.
- Abnormal nerve activity. According to electromyographic studies, leg cramps are associated with increased, abnormal nerve firing.
- Shortening of the tendons. The tendons, which connect muscles and bones, shorten naturally over time. This could lead to cramping in the muscles.
Leg cramps at night are unlikely to be the first sign of a more serious medical condition. They are, however, associated with the following conditions:
- structural issues, such as flat feet or spinal stenosis
- neurological disorders, such as motor neuron disease or peripheral neuropathy
- neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
- musculoskeletal disorders, such as osteoarthritis
- liver, kidney, and thyroid conditions
- metabolic disorders, such as diabetes
- cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease or peripheral vascular disease
- medications, such as statins and diuretics
Treating leg and calf cramps
Though leg cramps at night can be intensely painful, they aren’t typically serious. Most people who experience them don’t need medical treatment.
You can try the following at home to try to relieve a cramp:
- Massage your leg. Rubbing the affected muscle may help it relax. Use one or both hands to gently knead and loosen the muscle.
- Stretch. If the cramp is in your calf, straighten your leg. Flex your foot so that it’s lifted to face you and your toes are pointing towards you.
- Walk on your heels. This will activate the muscles opposite your calf, allowing it to relax.
- Apply heat. Heat can soothe tight muscles. Apply a hot towel, hot water bottle, or heating pad to the affected area. Taking a warm bath or shower may also help.
- Drink pickle juice. Some evidence suggests that drinking a small amount of pickle juice may help relieve muscle cramps.
- Take an over-the-counter painkiller if your leg is sore after. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve tenderness after a cramp. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can work as well.
If frequent cramps are disrupting your sleep, make an appointment with your doctor. They might prescribe a muscle relaxant to prevent cramps. If your cramps are related to another medical condition, they can help manage that too.
How to stop leg cramps at night
The following tips may help you avoid leg cramps while sleeping:
- Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids allow for normal muscle function. You might need to adjust how much fluid you drink based on factors such as the weather, your age, activity level, and medication you’re taking.
- Stretch your legs. Stretching your calves and hamstrings before bed can reduce the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps.
- Ride a stationary bike. A few minutes of easy pedaling might help loosen up your leg muscles before you go to sleep.
- Change your sleeping position. You should avoid sleeping in positions in which your feet are pointing downward. Try sleeping on your back with a pillow behind your knees.
- Avoid heavy or tucked-in bedding. Heavy or tucked-in bedding could push your feet downward while you sleep. Choose loose, untucked sheets, and a comforter that will allow you to keep your feet and toes upright while you sleep.
- Choose supportive footwear. Poor footwear can aggravate issues with the nerves and muscles in your feet and legs, especially if you have flat feet.
If you’ve ever experienced leg cramps at night, you know how painful they can be. Fortunately, they’re usually not a sign of a serious problem. Stretching the calf and hamstring muscles before bed may help to prevent nocturnal leg cramps.