All About Nighttime Leg Cramps: Common Causes and Tips for Prevention

woman with nighttime leg cramps

Do you suffer from leg cramps at night? You know the kind—those sometimes agonizing cramps in your legs that can wake you out of a sound sleep in a single heartbeat. Those cramps are caused when a muscle contracts suddenly and without warning. Ouch! They typically occur in the calf muscle but can also strike in the thigh or even the foot.

According to Dr. Paul Takahashi of the Mayo Clinic, they're painful and annoying, but generally harmless. However, Dr. Takahashi recommends seeing your doctor if the cramps are causing severe pain or regularly waking you up at night. If you're also experiencing any swelling, numbness, or muscle weakness, you should see your doctor right away. That goes for lingering or recurring pain, too!

What causes nighttime leg cramps?

Well, the truth is...Nobody seems to know! Doctors do know that your chances of suddenly waking up with one increase the older you get. Unfortunately, that doesn't preclude younger people from suffering from leg cramps. Even children have been stricken with these agonizing pains. They also seem to strike men and women equally. The Mayo Clinic says, "these cramps often occur for no known reason."

Whatever causes them, the pain from leg cramps can range from annoying to the extreme. Your leg muscles will feel like they've been tied in knots. The cramps can also last anywhere from mere seconds to ten or more minutes! You don't even need to be asleep for them to strike. If you're lying awake but motionless they can still cause you intense pain. Sometimes you'll experience muscle soreness even after the cramp finally lets up.

Some of the suspected causes are:

  • Dehydration that causes electrolyte imbalances
  • Lack of enough potassium, magnesium, or calcium in your diet
  • Prolonged periods of sitting or not sitting upright
  • Flat feet or spending a lot of time standing or walking on concrete floors
  • Over-exerting your muscles
  • Certain medications (especially beta-blockers and other blood pressure drugs)
  • Diuretics (Remember the part about dehydration?) These aren't always medications—they can include coffee, tea, and colas, too!
  • Alcoholism
  • Parkinson's disease or other neuromuscular disorders and peripheral vascular disease
  • Certain metabolic conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, or parathyroid conditions
  • Pregnancy

Swelling from excess fluid build-up (edema) can mimic leg cramp pain. That's why you should always have swelling checked out!

Is there anything that helps?

There are lots of varying ideas on what may help but no consensus of opinion. What gives one person relief may actually trigger leg cramps in another! Try keeping a diary of daily activities and nightly cramping to see if you can find a correlation. In the meantime, try a variety of the strategies below that might help prevent or at least mitigate the cramps.

If you wake up in excruciating pain, try these ideas:

  • You may be able to stop a cramp in its tracks if you actively stretch the muscle right away. That's the only way a tight muscle can really relax. Use a standing calf stretch for a cramp in your foot or calf. If it's above your knee, use a hamstring stretch.
  • Alternately, for a cramp in your calf stand with your weight on the painful leg and your knee slightly bent. If standing is too painful, stretch your leg out straight on the bed and try to point your toes at your nose.
  • Gently massaging the muscle after you stretch it might help it relax even more.
  • Applying an ice pack to the cramping area right away can help. If you don't have a regulation ice pack available, a bag of frozen peas works almost as well. Just make sure you apply the ice pack immediately.
  • Applying heat can also help. You can use a heating pad or take a hot shower or bath. A towel that's warm from the dryer will work if there's someone available who can help. You can also make your own moist heat packs and gel ice packs to keep on hand.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers will help relieve pain and soreness.

Prevention is better than a painful nighttime surprise

There are steps you can take to head off those painful spasms. Just make sure you keep track of what you've tried and whether, or how well, it worked. Doing so will help you sort out the ideas that worked from those that didn't work or (yikes!) even made things worse.

  • Wear comfortable shoes. If your shoes put an unnatural strain on your leg muscles during the day, those same muscles are apt to take revenge later that night!
  • A hot bath or shower before bed can soothe your muscles and help them relax. Epsom salts in your bath water may also help ward off muscle cramps.
  • Eat a potassium and magnesium-rich banana for dessert. Potassium and magnesium help muscles contract properly. A muscle that spasms in the middle of the night is definitely not contracting properly!
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day. Think of all those drinks as the lubricant that lets your muscles smoothly and easily contract and relax all day. If your muscles are well-lubricated, they're less likely to develop those painful, spasmodic contractions at night. Make especially sure that you drink extra fluids whenever you exercise.
  • Speaking of exercise, ride a bike to bed—an exercise bike, that is! A light workout can actually help those leg muscles to relax before going to bed. Muscles that are relaxed at bedtime are more likely to stay relaxed throughout the night.
  • Treat your legs to a good stretch before bed.
  • Some people have reported fewer leg cramps once they switched to an adjustable bed.
  • A heated mattress pad can provide some soothing warmth and prevent a chill that could cause a sudden contraction.
  • Forego your top sheet for a duvet with a cover. This isn't as shocking an idea as you might think. Most Europeans don't use top sheets and neither do 40% of Americans! Just wash your duvet cover with your bottom sheet and pillowcases. Looser bedding (as in no tucked-in top sheet!) lets your legs move easily rather than being pinned down. Pinned legs are more prone to leg cramps.
Well, there you have it. Some of what's known, or at least suspected, about the causes and prevention of nighttime leg cramps. Hopefully, this information can help prevent painful leg cramps from waking you up at night. Contact us for more ideas on how to get a restful night's sleep. We're sleep experts and love sharing our knowledge with all of you sleepers out there!

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