Sudden muscular contractions that cause pains in your calves, feet, and/or thighs arise mostly overnight, disrupting your sleep. But nocturnal leg cramps also may occur while you’re awake in the evening during inactive periods. They occur most often when you’re in a recumbent (resting or reclining) position. Medical professionals explain this agonizing and perplexing condition and multiple ways to overcome it.
Nocturnal leg cramps may vary in pain intensity. When your muscles seize up, they create tightened or knotted feelings. They may distort your foot’s arch or deform your toes so they become uncontrollable. Excruciating symptoms can linger several seconds or 15 or more minutes. Your muscles may remain sore or tender for several more hours after the torment subsides. These cramps strike as seldom as once a year among some patients. For certain people, sleep-related contractions come and go for many years. Yet others suffer multiple times per night.
Various techniques help different people during cramp bouts. Try stretching your affected muscles forcefully, shaking your leg, massaging it, or walking. Stand up, put your weight on your constricted leg, and bend at the knee. If pain prevents standing, straighten the leg and then flex your foot upward. Or from the back, rub the full length of your calf in long upward strokes from the heel to the knee. Apply hot or cold packs. Hot water from a bath or shower also may help.
Risk Factors and Causes
These leg cramps afflict middle-aged adults and those older than 50 mostly, but younger adults as well as children can experience them. They affect males and females equally.
The exact cause of recumbent leg cramps can be undeterminable at times, but doctors have linked some cases to:
Working or standing on concrete and other hard surfaces
Improper sitting positions
Research also has related nighttime leg cramps to medical conditions including:
Electrolyte imbalances of minerals including calcium, magnesium, and potassium
Muscle chemistry imbalances related to blood supply, nerve, or muscle problems
Neuromuscular disorders including neuropathy, motor neuron disease, and myopathy
Neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease
Endocrine disorders including diabetes and hypothyroidism
Structural disorders like flat feet
Is this Restless Leg Syndrome?
No. Both of these leg disturbances are common at night when you’re at rest or asleep, but restless leg syndrome doesn’t cause cramping or pain. It involves pulling, throbbing, crawling, uncomfortable sensations, which trigger an uncontrollable need to move your legs. Movement relieves the restlessness, but discomfort resumes as movement ends. This doesn’t occur during sleep-related spasms, which need active stretching to relieve tightened muscle agony.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If leg cramps occur regularly with severe suffering, consult your doctor. He needs to know if they’re hindering your sleep and causing swelling, muscle weakness, and lingering or recurrent pain or numbness. Your physician will consider your symptoms and medical history and do a physical exam. If he can determine an underlying cause, he will treat it first. When blood work detects unbalanced electrolytes, calcium and/or magnesium supplements may help.
When the reason is uncertain, your doctor may prescribe Norvasc, a calcium channel blocker, to widen your blood vessels so your blood will flow more easily. Or a muscle relaxant like Orphenadrine, generic Norflex, that treats spasms may be beneficial. Anticonvulsants may alleviate severe cases. Pain relievers including Acetaminophen also may be of help.
Hydrate by drinking six or eight water glasses throughout every day and while working out.
Wear comfortable and supportive shoes that fit properly.
Include warm ups and stretches before physical activities as well as warm downs and stretches afterward.
Exercise your legs and feet regularly.
Ride a stationary bike for a few minutes before bedtime.
Stretch your calf muscles gently earlier in the day and before retiring each night.
Keep your sheets, blankets, and other covers over your feet loose so they don’t distort your toes.
Eating foods with three essential minerals also can help ward off cramps. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium work together to help regulate your nerves and muscles so they won’t spasm as often. Vegan nutritionist Heather Nicholds suggests a daily green smoothie that combines multiple beneficial ingredients (see video below). Mix almond milk with raw cacao powder and dark leafy greens. She and other experts recommend getting your fill of the right nutrients from these sources.
Sardines with bones
Tofu and other soybean-rich foods
Raw cacao (chocolate)
Sunflower seed butter
Apricots and other dried fruits
Apple cider vinegar (Mix 2 teaspoons with 1 teaspoon of honey in warm water)