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Leg cramps at nighttime, or nocturnal leg cramps, are more common than you know. These cramps mostly affect the calf muscles and immensely reduce the quality of your sleep and quality of life.
Leg cramps are primarily a musculoskeletal disorder that can cause involuntary, painful, and repeated contractions of the foot and leg muscles. (1)
Why Your Legs Are Cramping at Night
Some factors that influence nighttime cramps include:
1. Long periods of standing throughout the day
Standing for long periods during the day for work and other activities can lead to serious complications such as leg and back pain. This leg pain can also occur during the night, disturbing your sleep and increasing your discomfort, and disrupting your performance the next day. (2)
Using interventions such as sitting, stretching, and slow walks every 1–2 hours of standing time can prevent the muscles from cramping.
Exercising is the most common reason for muscle cramps, particularly muscles of the leg. These cramps can be painful and last from minutes to hours. (3)
Strategies to reduce exercise-associated cramps include doing warmup exercises before and a cool-down stretch after a training session.
3. Electrolyte imbalances
Electrolyte imbalances that may occur due to sweating or vomiting can result in muscle cramps.
Potassium and sodium are responsible for maintaining fluid balance in the body, and an imbalance of these minerals can cause muscular contractions that result in cramps that may be painful. (4)
4. Hormonal disorders
Disorders of the organs of the endocrine system, such as the thyroid or parathyroid where hormones are produced, can also result in muscle cramps due to muscle dysfunction. (5)
This type of cramp can be treated by addressing the underlying hormonal disorder.
5. Nerve compressions
Nerve compression or nerve pinching can occur in the spine, such as in sciatica. This can cause painful cramps that are often disturbing. The affected nerves receive reduced blood flow and undergo degeneration, which causes contractions. (6)(7)
Studies have reported nerve root compression to be a cause of nighttime cramps.
Certain medicines such as those for acidity (beta blockers) and lowering cholesterol levels (statins) can cause mild contractions and nighttime leg cramps. (1)
Studies have shown the use of these drugs may worsen existing cramps, and it is important to let your doctor know so they can prescribe an alternative medication for you. (8)(9)
Pregnancy is associated with an incredible amount of changes in the body. Most women complain of leg cramps in the last trimester.
The reasons could be weight gain, insufficient blood flow to the muscles, nerve compression, electrolyte imbalances due to frequent urination, and malnutrition. (1)
A doctor or midwife can instruct you on how to manage and reduce the occurrence of these symptoms.
8. Certain medical conditions
Certain underlying medical conditions such as those affecting the blood vessels, narrowing of the lower spinal column, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver tissues), diabetes, kidney disease, and anemia can also cause potentially painful leg cramps. (10)
Treating the underlying cause of leg cramps may help ease the pain and discomfort.
Managing Leg Cramps
Identifying the underlying reason for leg cramps is necessary for their management.
Common strategies include stretching, wearing comfortable footwear throughout the day, reducing standing time, sleeping under loose covers, and medications. A doctor or physiotherapist may be able to help you outline a stretching routine.
Most-Asked Questions About Leg Cramps
Can drinking water stop leg cramps?
Yes, hydrating 1–2 hours before bedtime with water or an electrolyte drink can help restore minerals in the muscles. This can prevent leg cramps induced by dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
Can I use heat to ease a leg cramp?
Using a hot and cold compress can ease the muscles to reduce their contraction. You can also massage the area to relax the muscles.
Can mineral supplements ease muscle cramps?
If the muscle cramp is occurring due to a mineral or electrolyte deficiency, taking supplements may help. However, do consult a doctor to get the best prescription for your needs.
Nocturnal leg cramps are leg cramps that occur at night, which can disrupt your sleep and cause discomfort.
Though the exact cause of cramps is unknown, certain conditions such as pregnancy, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, long periods of standing, and excessive exercising without proper stretching can all lead to leg cramps.
Treatment for nocturnal leg cramps includes identifying the reason first. Treating the underlying cause may likely ease the cramps. Massage and hot compresses can also be used to manage cramps.
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