There are few things worse than a leg cramp that suddenly comes on to disrupt your night’s sleep. Also known as ‘nocturnal leg cramps’ or even ‘charley horses’ in more layman’s terms, these are involuntary spasms in the leg muscles – usually the calves – that can be painful. It can feel like that part of your leg is being twisted or contorted in such a way that you might feel like a pretzel, even if you don’t look like one.
According to an account in American Family Physician, as reported per medicalnewstoday.com, more than half of all adults and about 7 percent of children at one time or another suffer from nighttime leg cramps. These can lead to issues such as sleep disruption and messing up a person’s sleep cycle, meaning the next day might be a drag because of a feeling of tiredness or lethargy. Over time, leg cramps can eventually produce conditions such as insomnia.
What Causes Leg Cramps?
One of the head scratchers about leg cramps, or any sort of muscle cramps for that matter, is that overuse of a muscle can lead to muscle cramps as can underuse of muscles, such as sitting at a desk most of the workday or lounging around as a sofa spud munching on food while also binging the day away watching a complete season of your favorite Netflix series.
There are other factors as well, such as the following outlined per mayoclinic.org:
- Deficient supply of blood. This can occur while you are exercising, when narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to your legs result in cramp-related pain. But this condition usually dissipates after you have finished working out.
- Nerve compression. This involves the constriction of nerves in your spine that can also produce the cramping discomfort in your legs. This pain can increase the longer you walk, like when you are pushing a grocery cart in a slightly flexed position.
- Mineral reduction. Such a depletion of potassium, calcium, or magnesium can be a factor leading to leg cramps. The use of medications such as diuretics frequently prescribed for those with hypertension (high blood pressure) has also been connected to the loss of these minerals and resultant leg cramps.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of muscle use can also contribute to a higher probability of muscle/leg cramps. In that sense, a loss of muscle mass can lead to added stress placed on the muscle, resulting in cramping, per health.usnews.com. Likewise, jumping right into an intense workout without first warming up or stretching often leads to the kind of overuse that can make your muscles kick back at you in a painful manner.
Dehydration can also be a factor, as can diabetes and thyroid issues. Underlying conditions such as peripheral artery disease, especially in the legs or arms, per health.usnews.com, can also induce the kind of cramping that makes for sleep interference.
Other factors that can contribute to leg cramping are inactivity during the day – such as all that sitting at your cubicle or in the office; your body position, such as sitting or lying for extended periods, such as resting one leg atop another or crossing your legs; older age (up to 33 percent of people over the age of 50 deal with chronic nighttime leg cramps); pregnancy; and possible side effects of medications such as naproxen and conjugated estrogens, per medicalnewstoday.com.
Home Remedies for Preventing/Alleviating Leg Cramps
If such cramping issues are chronic, it’s time to see your physician. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, here are some suggested home treatments to consider:
- When cramping occurs, massage the affected area by hand or with a foam roller. Yeah, you’re grimacing while doing it, but push through the pain.
- Extend the leg muscles by flexing and unflexing the foot of the affected leg. This helps extend, i.e. stretch, the leg muscles.
- Mild exercise. A few minutes walking or pedaling on a stationary bicycle before bedtime can help prepare your leg muscles for a sound night of slumber, per medicalnewstoday.com.
- Stay hydrated. By drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day, every day, you maintain hydration in your muscle cells while also allowing your muscles to contract and relax, per mayoclinic.org, keeping them loose.
- Apply heat or cold. Heat applied via a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles can help ‘loosen’ them, while massaging the cramped muscle with ice can help alleviate the pain.
- Supplementation with vitamin B complex can help manage leg cramps. Avoiding mineral depletion by taking calcium, potassium, or magnesium – preferably with a health professional’s guidance – can also help stave off cramping.
- Quinine, extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, is sometimes used to treat muscle cramps, which is available in supplement form, per health.usnews.com.