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Nighttime Leg Cramps Are Jerks. Here's How To Make Them Go Away

An effective cure can be equally as elusive as the root cause of a leg cramp.

08/10/2017 16:30 EDT | Updated 08/10/2017 16:31 EDT

When bedtime beckons we look forward to restful repose. But for those of us who suffer from nocturnal leg or calf cramps, also known as a charlie horse, uninterrupted sleep can be elusive. Leg cramps are characterized by an uncomfortable contraction in the muscle that doesn't let up for a few minutes or more.

According to American Family Physician, up to 60 per cent of adults have experienced nighttime leg cramps. It's also reported that women suffer from leg cramps more often than men, and that the prevalence of leg cramps tend to increase with age.

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Leg cramp causes

In a study of people aged 60 years and older, almost a third experienced leg cramps in the previous two months, including half of those 80 and older. Forty per cent suffered leg cramps more than three times a week, with 21 per cent describing their symptoms as "very distressing." In fact, up to 20 per cent of people who have leg cramps find their daily symptoms severe enough to seek medical attention.

Leg cramps are an idiopathic condition that have no specific and identifiable cause. There's much conjecture as to what causes leg cramps during sleep, but a few common causes include:

  • Mineral deficiencies in calcium, magnesium and potassium
  • Deficiencies in vitamins A, B and E
  • Medical conditions like liver failure, cirrhosis, kidney disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism
  • A fluid/electrolyte imbalance
  • Dehydration, especially after exercise
  • Prescription medications such as diuretics, statins and bronchodialators for asthma

Dr. Shaun O'Keefe is a clinical lecturer at Galway University and co-author of the definitive Galway study on nocturnal leg cramps in older adults. Dr. O'Keefe says, "Low potassium and magnesium can cause and worsen leg cramps. However, apart from getting these corrected and improving your cramps, you would want to find out why your blood chemistry is abnormal — low potassium and magnesium at a level that would influence cramps is not a normal finding."

An effective cure can be equally as elusive as the root cause of a leg cramp.

Leg cramp relief and remedies

As it turns out, an effective cure can be equally as elusive as the root cause of a leg cramp. The only medication that has been found effective for reducing the frequency and intensity of leg cramps is quinine.

However, it's only prescribed in severe cases and should be used with extreme caution. According to the Galway study, "the degree of benefit from quinine is modest and the risks include rare but serious immune-mediated reactions, and specifically in older adults, dose-related side effects." The U.S. Food & Drug Administration advises against the use of quinine to treat nighttime leg cramps due to the drug's serious side effects.

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What can be done to get relief from leg cramps? Here are five lifestyle and home remedies to consider:

1. Stretch and massage your legs

After a sudden onset of nighttime leg cramps, stretching and massaging the affected areas can bring instant relief. Gently rub the cramped area to help your muscles relax. Stretch your legs by putting the weight on your cramped leg and bending your knee slightly. If you find it difficult to stand, try sitting on a chair with your affected leg extended.

2. Apply a hot or cold compress

Use a heating pad or warm towel to ease cramped muscles. A hot shower can also help relax the calf muscles. Alternatively, applying an ice pack to the affected area can help numb the pain.

3. Ensure your diet is rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium

Getting your calcium from dietary sources (as opposed to supplements) has several advantages. Your body absorbs calcium better when it gets it in smaller doses throughout the day, rather than all at once. In addition, calcium-rich foods, such as kale, bok choi, chia seeds, asparagus and artichokes, provide other nutrients that help your body absorb and utilize this essential mineral. Green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are good sources of magnesium, while pistachios, fennel, persimmons and avocados are dietary sources of potassium.

4. Stay hydrated

Since muscle cramps are an effect of mild-to-moderate dehydration, it's important to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can be an issue, especially for older adults. Researchers estimate that 20 to 30 per cent of older people have water-loss dehydration. Sip water throughout the day (drinking a large amount all at once can fill you up, affecting your appetite) or suck on ice cubes, particularly if it's a hot day and snack on fruit, such as watermelon, cantaloupe and cucumber and other foods that have high fluid content.

5. Strengthen your calf muscles

As part of your weekly fitness routine, incorporate exercises like reverse lunges and dead lifts, which strengthen your calf muscles. Before climbing into bed, stretch your calf muscles or do some light exercise like riding a stationery bike. This may help prevent instances of nighttime leg cramps.

Eileen O'Sullivan is a London-based writer who has been writing feature articles both online and in print since her early 20s. Her kids are grown up now so she spends her time doing what she enjoys the most — researching and writing about the world around her and particularly how it affects the over 50s.

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