HomeGeneral MedicineNight Leg Cramps - Causes and Treatment

Night Leg Cramps – Causes and Treatment

Overview

Also referred to as nocturnal leg cramps or muscle spasms, night leg cramps affect adults. Night leg cramps are more common among older adults and women than in teenagers. However, most cases of night leg cramps are not severe and can be treated at home.

What are Night Leg Cramps?

Night leg cramps are involuntary spasms or contractions in your legs. Usually, these cramps affect the calf muscles, also known as gastrocnemius muscles. However, in some cases, the muscles in your front thighs known as quadriceps, or back thighs known as hamstrings, can also be affected.

When the leg cramps occur at night, you can either be asleep or awake. Usually, the cramp resolves itself within 10 minutes. For almost an entire day, your leg may feel tender or sore after the leg cramp resolves. If you experience night leg cramps frequently, it can disrupt your sleep.

What Causes Night Leg Cramps?

Some cases of leg cramps happen for no known causes. This type of leg cramp is known as idiopathic cramps. However, some leg cramps could be a symptom or a complication of an underlying health condition. This type of leg cramps is called secondary leg cramps.

The exact causes of idiopathic cramps are not known yet. However, certain factors can increase your risk of developing night leg cramps:

  • Foot position while sleeping

You sleep with your feet and toes extending from the rest of your body. This position is known as plantar flexion. It shortens your calf muscles, thereby increasing the risk of cramping in the muscles.

  • Muscle overexertion

Excessive exercising can overwork your calf muscles and increase your risk of developing cramps.

  • Sedentary lifestyle

To function correctly, your muscles need to be adequately stretched. Sitting for a prolonged period in a particular position can make you susceptible to cramping.

  • Prolonged standing

Studies suggest that standing for an extended period can increase your risk of developing night leg cramps.

  • Tendon shortening

Tendons connect your bones and muscles. Over time, the tendons tend to shorten in length. This can increase your risk of developing cramps.

Night leg cramps are usually not severe. However, they are associated with the following medical conditions and could be a symptom of these conditions:

When Should You See a Doctor?

Although most cases of night leg cramps are not severe, it is recommended that you visit your doctor to get it checked. The doctor may be able to diagnose and treat your condition correctly if it is something severe.

How are Night Leg Cramps Diagnosed?

Although there are no specific diagnostic tests to confirm night leg cramps, your doctor may still run some tests to diagnose other underlying medical conditions with leg cramps as a symptom. For instance, the doctor may take your blood pressure, which can reveal vascular or cardiac diseases.

Your doctor may also ask you the following questions if needed:

  • When did you start experiencing leg cramps?
  • What does the pain feel like?
  • How long do the cramps last?
  • Are there any other symptoms along with the leg cramps?

Are there any Treatment Options Available for Night Leg Cramps?

Even though night leg cramps can be excruciating, people who experience leg cramps at night do not require medical treatment.

You can try the following preventive measures to avoid the risk of developing night leg cramps:

  • Stretching

Before you go to bed, stretch and straighten your legs properly. Flex your feet as well.

  • Massage your legs

To help relax the muscles of your legs, massage them thoroughly. Gently knead and loosen your leg muscles.

  • Drink plenty of fluids

Fluids allow your muscles to function normally. Drink lots of fluid before going to bed to ensure your leg muscles work well and prevent the chances of experiencing night leg cramps.

  • Apply heat

If you have had night leg cramps before in a particular region of your leg, apply heat to that area. Apply a hot water bottle, hot water towel, or heating pad to the part. If possible, take a hot water shower before going to bed. Heat is known to soothe the tight muscles of your body.

  • Take over-the-counter medications

If you experience any soreness or tenderness in your leg after night cramps, take over-the-counter medications such as naproxen, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. These medications will help with the pain and soreness.

Conclusion

If you have ever experienced night leg cramps, you know they can be painful. However, in most cases, they are not serious. You can stretch and massage your legs thoroughly to reduce the risk of experiencing night leg cramps.

If you keep experiencing night leg cramps frequently, it is recommended that you consult with your doctor. It may be due to an underlying medication condition. The doctor will run further tests to confirm whether your night leg cramps are severe.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between night leg cramps and restless leg syndrome?

Both night leg cramps and restless leg syndrome happen when you are at rest or during the night. The difference is in the amount of pain they cause. While night leg cramps cause severe pain, restless leg syndrome causes more of a crawling sensation that makes you want to move your legs.

Are there certain medications that can increase my risk of experiencing leg cramps?

Medications have side effects. There are chances you may experience leg cramps due to certain medications such as:

  • Conjugated estrogens
  • Diuretics
  • Statins
  • Zolpidem
  • Albuterol or Ipratropium
  • Clonazepam
  • Amoxicillin

If you experience leg cramps as a side effect of your medications, you can consult with your doctor.

Do night leg cramps have any warning signs?

Unfortunately, leg cramps happen suddenly, and there are no warning signs. However, if you are pregnant or taking certain medications, you can expect night leg cramps as a side effect.

Can medications help prevent night leg cramps?

At this point, there are no recommended medications that can help prevent night leg cramps entirely. However, certain prescription medications have proven to help prevent night leg cramps. These include:

  • Carisoprodol – a type of muscle relaxant.
  • Diltiazem or Verapamil – types of calcium-channel blockers.
  • Orphenadrine – helps relieve stiffness and pain in the muscles and treat muscle spasms.

Can night leg cramps get worse?

It is not impossible to predict the severity of your night leg cramps. Many people see improvement in their leg cramps with prevention and treatment plans, while some do not. But your night leg cramps may get worse or occur more often as you age.

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