Leg Cramps: Causes, Preventions & Treatments

What is Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps, also known as night leg cramps, especially calf-muscle cramps, are fairly common. Some people experience cramps in the muscles of their feet, as well as their thigh muscles. In most cases these types of cramps occur while the individual is sleeping or resting.

A cramp pain typically lasts a few minutes. In some cases it lasts just seconds; however, in some cases it lasts up to 10 minutes. The severity of the pain varies. The muscle may remain tender for up to 24 hours after a leg cramp. Leg cramps usually occur when you are resting – most commonly at night when in bed. (They are often called night cramps.) They may wake you. It can become a distressing condition if your sleep is regularly disturbed.


Causes of Leg Cramps

Leg cramps can occur for no apparent reason, known as idiopathic leg cramps, or as a symptom or complication of a health condition, known as secondary leg cramps.

Causes of secondary leg cramps can include:

  • pregnancy
  • exercise
  • certain types of medication, such as statins (medicines that help lower
  • cholesterol levels)
  • liver disease

During a cramp, your muscles suddenly contract (shorten), causing pain in your leg. This is known as a spasm, and you cannot control the affected muscle.

The cramp can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes. When the spasm passes, you will be able to control the affected muscle again.


Prevention of Leg Cramps

If you often get leg cramps, regularly stretching the muscles in your lower legs may help prevent the cramps or reduce their frequency.

You might find it useful to stretch your calves before you go to bed each night (see stretching advice above or try this post-exercise calf stretch).

The following night-time advice may also help:

  • If you lie on your back, make sure that your toes point upwards –placing a pillow on its side at the end of your bed, with the soles of your feet propped up against it may help keep your feet in the right position.
  • If you lie on your front, hang your feet over the end of the bed – this will keep your feet in a relaxed position and help stop the muscles in your calves from contracting and tensing.
  • Keep your sheets and blankets loose.


How can I Prevent Pain From Leg Cramps During Pregnancy?

These tips might help ease the pain of leg cramps during pregnancy:

  • Don’t stand or sit with your legs crossed for long periods of time.
  • Stretch your calf muscles regularly during the day and several times before you go to bed.
  • Rotate your ankles and wiggle your toes whenever you sit down, eat dinner, or watch TV.
  • Take a walk every day (unless your healthcare provider has advised you not to exercise).
  • Lie down on your left side to improve circulation to and from your legs.
  • Drink water regularly to stay hydrated during the day.
  • Try a warm bath before bed to relax your muscles.


Treatment for Leg Cramps

Treatment If there is no underlying cause the leg cramps will probably get better without treatment.

Stretching exercises – if the cramp is in the calf muscle:

  • Straighten the leg and bend the ankle backwards, thus stretching the calf muscle.
  • Walk on tiptoes for a few minutes.
  • Stand about one meter from a wall with your feet flat on the ground. Lean forward against the wall with your arms outstretched, but don’t lift your heels (keep your heels on the ground). Stay like that for about ten seconds and gently return to an upright position. Repeat about 5 to 10 times.

Some people find that these stretching exercises not only help them get over a leg cramp episode, but also that help reduce how often they occur. Typically, a patient would do these exercises two or three times a day.

Last updated on March 2nd, 2018

Chris Riley

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