Nighttime leg cramps are painful and incapacitating. They can awaken you out of a sound sleep, and if severe, can leave you feeling sore for days afterward.
If you’re an adult, chances are you’ve experienced nighttime leg cramps. According to American Family Physician, as many as 60 percent of adults and 7 percent of children have experienced nocturnal cramping in their legs, with the average episode lasting nine painful minutes.
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While these sudden, involuntary muscle contractions typically occur in the calves, they can also occur in the thighs and feet. They cause a tight, knotted sensation that can render a person temporarily immobile.
While most sources say the exact cause of nighttime leg cramps remains unknown, there are some commonly held theories about why they happen.
Causes of leg cramps
1. Overuse or underuse of muscles
According to research, muscle fatigue is believed to be the primary cause of nighttime leg cramps. Those who overexert their muscles, such as athletes or fitness buffs, may experience muscle cramps later in the day or in the middle of the night. Overuse of the muscles, which can occur with things like standing for long periods of time, can also lead to muscle fatigue and nighttime leg cramps.
Conversely, sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause nighttime cramping. Aging and leading a sedentary lifestyle both lead to tendon and muscle shortening, which can result in leg cramps.
2. Cold body temperature
Leg cramps are more likely to occur in cold weather or during the night when the body temperature drops and the room temperature is cooler. You may go outdoors without keeping your legs warm, and you may sometimes forget to cover yourself with a warm quilt when you sleep. As a result, the muscles will contract, leading to leg cramps.
3. Sleeping position
Sleeping in the same position for a prolonged period of time, or sleeping with one leg crossed over another, will lead to decreased blood flow and venous stasis. As a result, you may experience pain and cramping in the legs.
4. Vascular disease
The cause of leg cramps may also be related to poor local circulation, such as peripheral vascular disease or varicose veins. Poor circulation can also damage nerve endings and act as a source of leg pain and spasm.
A number of medications can cause leg cramps. These include certain cholesterol and blood pressure medications, some inhalers, and diuretics.
Are leg cramps caused by a mineral deficiency?
It’s a commonly held belief that leg cramps are the result of a mineral deficiency. While there is limited evidence to back this up, there is strong anecdotal evidence, and even sources such as WebMD suggest that minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and zinc may be beneficial in treating or preventing leg cramps.
Medical News Today specifically mentions calcium deficiency as a cause of leg cramps. Although calcium is only a trace element needed by the human body, it is indispensable. If the body lacks calcium, a person may experience cramping, aches, and spasms.
In terms of diet, as WebMD points out, eating more bananas may be helpful. Bananas are rich in potassium, and therefore may help prevent nighttime leg cramps to a certain extent.
How to deal with sudden leg cramps
If you suddenly develop a bad leg cramp, be sure to lie down if you’re not already doing so. Once you’re lying flat, it’s important to not stretch your feet too much, as it can potentially worsen the cramping.
Instead, press your feet down into the bed or ground. This maneuver will improve blood flow, causing the muscle to gradually release, and causing the pain to subside.
Preventing leg cramps in daily life
In addition to the above measures, there are some other simple things you can do to help prevent nighttime leg cramps.
For one, before going to bed, take a few minutes to massage your legs every night. By lightly massaging and gently hitting your legs from the calf to the thigh, you not only help reduce fluid in your legs, but also stimulate blood flow.
Regular stretching is also important. No matter what exercise or activity you’re doing, including walking or jogging, it’s important to warm up in advance. Proper hydration, as well as supportive shoes, may also be beneficial.
And remember, if muscle cramping is severe or persistent, be sure to follow up with your doctor, as this can be a symptom of a more serious disease.