If you’ve ever woken up screaming in pain while holding your thigh, calf, or legs, you probably had a leg cramp at night. Leg cramps are painful muscle spasms that happen in your leg, usually when you’re asleep. Your leg muscles will suddenly contract and leave you writhing in pain for several minutes. In extreme cases, your muscles could feel sore and hurt for days.
Although leg cramps could happen anytime during the day, they usually occur when the muscles are resting. Hence, they are known as Nocturnal leg cramps. Leg cramps usually affect the calves, thigh, and feet, although they can occur anywhere on your leg.
Who do leg cramps at night affect?
Nocturnal cramps are very common. In fact, according to a study by the American Family Physician, about 60% of all adults reported leg cramps at night.
Leg cramps are common in adults 50 and above, and the frequency of these involuntary muscle spasms tends to worsen with age. On rare occasions, leg cramps can also affect teenagers and even children. Luckily, although they can cause agonizing pain, they are usually harmless.
15 Common Causes of Leg Cramps at Night
Unfortunately, no one knows precisely what causes leg cramps at night. Leg night cramps are usually idiopathic. Your brain could misinterpret a message and send an involuntary signal telling your leg muscles to move. Since your legs can’t understand the signal they’re receiving at that moment, the leg muscles contract.
Leg cramps could also be a result of your sleeping position. Since your legs point away from your body when you lie down to sleep, this position shortens your calf muscles and makes them prone to leg cramps.
Other factors that could trigger cramping of legs at night include:
1. Over Exercising
When you put your leg muscles through too much strain doing strenuous exercises like running marathons, your muscles can cramp up.
Top tip: Your muscles need rest too when you over-exercise. Lactic acid accumulates in your calf muscles and can cause leg cramps. Take enough time to recover after you exercise. Alternatively, you can perform mild exercises.
2. Staying in the same position for too long
If your job requires you to sit down in one spot for hours, you may be more susceptible to leg cramps. The reason is – Your muscles need to be stretched regularly; once it doesn’t get enough exercise, it can tighten and cause painful cramps.
Top tip: I recommend taking short breaks to move and relax your muscles; you can take short walks or stand up and stretch.
3. Sitting position
Your sitting position can also cause your legs to cramp at night. When you sit down, crossing your legs, or allow your toes point downward for a long time, your calf muscles shorten and could cause cramping.
4. Standing for an extended period of time
Our muscles were made to stretch, contract, and rest. So naturally, if you are doing too much of one and ignoring the other, you may experience leg cramps.
Traffic wardens, waiters, and other people that have to work on their feet for a long time are more susceptible to nocturnal leg cramps.
Top tip: You can relax your legs by stretching or sitting down after each hour of standing.
5. Abnormal nerve activity
When your brain becomes over-excited, it can abnormally send signals to the leg that can trigger your leg cramping.
6. Short tendons
As we age, our muscles weaken, and the tendons that join our muscles and bones together grow shorter too. When your tendons become too short, they can cause nocturnal leg cramps.
7. Lack of sleep
When your body isn’t getting regular sleep, your muscles grow tired faster, and the chances of experiencing nerve dysfunction increase drastically. Muscle fatigue and nerve dysfunction can trigger your leg cramps.
Like waking up in pain isn’t enough; leg cramps may affect the quality of sleep. Your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers that’ll help you reduce the frequency of your leg cramps at night.
Top tip: If you’re worried about the leg cramps that come at night, lack of sleep may worsen the pain and may even increase the frequency of late-night cramps. I recommend you take muscle relaxers or do a little exercise before bed.
When your muscles are over-worked, the risk of getting leg cramps increases; if your muscles don’t have enough time to rest and recover from your previous exercise, you are more prone to painful leg cramps. In some cases, your leg cramps could be a symptom of an underlying disease.
Diabetes can lead to several complications, one of which is diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Here, diabetes damages the nerves in your legs and arms.
Damaged leg nerves can tighten the leg muscles and may lead to leg cramps. Another factor that can trigger muscle spasms in diabetes patients is low blood glucose.
Your muscles need glucose to function, and when you have low blood sugar, your muscles may not get enough glucose to work properly. When your muscles become deprived, it can cause leg cramps at night.
10. Leg cramps from Pregnancy
Asides the morning sickness and nausea, leg cramps are also major symptoms of pregnancy. Leg cramps are very common during the second and third trimesters.
These nocturnal leg cramps may be caused by fatigue, dehydration, or calcium magnesium deficiency.
11. Alcohol abuse
Asides from intoxication, taking too much alcohol can have damaging effects on the nerve and muscle cells. The reason is – When you drink alcohol, it builds up lactic acid in your muscles, which can cause muscle spasms in your leg.
Alcohol also increases the rate of dehydration in the body. Since your muscles need fluids to stay hydrated enough to relax and contract, your muscles can malfunction and cause muscle cramps once your body is dehydrated.
Certain hormone disorders like hypothyroidism can also cause nocturnal leg cramps. The deficiency of thyroid hormones can affect nerve cells and trigger muscle cramps.
Just as overexcited nerves can cause muscle cramps on the legs, nerves can also cause cramping for other reasons. The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, is typically characterized by rigid, achy joints. But also, people with painful conditions may experience muscle spasms and cramps on the legs.
If you start experiencing leg cramps immediately after you start a medication, your drugs might be the culprit.
- Intravenous iron sucrose (for treating Anemia)
- Asthma medications like Albuterol
- Pain reliefs like Naproxen
- Osteoporosis drugs (Raloxifene)
15. Mineral Deficiency
Certain mineral deficiencies, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium, can cause Charley horses.
For example, magnesium is essential for many biological processes, including nerve transmission and muscle contraction. So naturally, your muscles need minerals to function properly and stay healthy.
When there’s a deficiency of one of these minerals, your muscles may tighten and cause leg cramps.
How to Get Rid of Leg Cramps at Night
Although leg cramps can be excruciating and uncomfortable, they aren’t usually serious. Luckily, if your leg cramps are not symptoms of an underlying disease, your leg cramps will get better without medical treatment.
If your leg cramps leave your calf muscles sore for days, you can try over-the-counter pain killers in your local drug store.
1. Take your vitamins
If you have a deficiency of 1 or 2 vitamins, especially calcium, magnesium, and potassium, it could affect your muscles. According to a study, taking multivitamins rich in magnesium can reduce the severity of leg cramps, especially in pregnant women.
Top tip: I recommend you take about 300mg of magnesium daily.
2. Treat the underlying disease
If a severe disease is causing your leg cramps, treating the underlying condition will reduce the frequency of your leg cramps. Fortunately, there are simple home remedies to help you deal with leg cramps.
3. Avoid any activity that causes your nocturnal leg cramps
If you’re standing for too long, sitting for too long, or over-exercising, make a conscious effort to stretch and relax your tense muscles. If your medication is causing your cramps, you can talk to your doctor about an alternative.
4. Massage your leg
Once you wake up with a leg cramp, you can relieve the pain by massaging the muscle gently to help it relax. Put two or three fingers across the affected muscle and rub gently.
5. Move the affected muscle
Immediately you start feeling the pain, try and move, either by walking around or shaking the affected leg.
6. Cold compress
Using a cold compress on the affected muscle will help reduce the pain.
7. Drinking Pickle Juice
Although there’s no concrete evidence backing pickle juice as a home remedy for leg cramps, pickle juice has been the go-to drink for many years. Drinking pickle juice replenishes your muscle with water and sodium.
In fact, some researchers suggest pickle juice cures leg cramps by correcting the nerve dysfunction causing the muscle cramp.
Stretching is another simple method you can use to relieve leg cramps.
How to stretch:
- If the cramps are affecting your calf muscles, you can stretch your legs till they are straight. Make sure your toes are pointing towards your body.
- If the cramps are affecting other leg muscles, you can walk on your heels. This will allow your leg muscles to relax and relieve the pain.
- Repeat these movements until the pain stops.
9. Apply heat
Heat can help relax tightened muscles. You can take a warm bath, apply a warm towel to the affected muscle, or use a heating pad.
10. OTC Medications
If your legs feel sore days after your night cramps, you can take over-the-counter painkillers to help reduce the pain. Popular painkillers available in your local drug stores include:
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
11. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is also known to help reduce the onset of cramps. There is a lack of scientific studies documenting this effect but common anecdotal reports.
Vitamin E has other beneficial effects on health and is not harmful in normal doses, and you can take 400 units of vitamin E daily.
How to prevent leg cramps at night?
Luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid uncomfortable leg cramps at night. However, in some cases, preventing leg cramps may not be possible.
1. Moderate exercise
If you always experience leg cramps after running marathons or staying in the gym for too long, you can cut back on your gym time. Alternatively, if you’re always stagnant during the day, make a conscious effort to do some mild exercises often.
Top tip: you can walk and stretch a few minutes before you sleep to prevent leg cramps at night.
2. Stay hydrated
Your muscles need fluids to function correctly, especially since fluids help to transport nutrients into the muscles. Staying hydrated by drinking a lot of water will keep your muscles hydrated and reduce the risk of having muscle spasms.
3. Change your shoes
If you notice regular nocturnal leg cramps, you can see a podiatrist change your shoes to more supportive footwear—the better your feet and leg feel, the less the cramping.
4. Stretch your legs
Before you zap off to bed, stretching your leg muscles will help you prevent leg cramping at night. If you don’t know how to stretch, I recommend you sit down and pretend you’re riding an imaginary bike.
Once you stretch for a few minutes, it’ll help you relax your muscles and avoid involuntary spasms.
5. Change your sleeping position
The position you sleep in also has a substantial effect on the frequency of your leg cramps. To prevent leg cramps, try and avoid sleeping positions where your feet point away from your body.
Bad sleeping positions make your calf muscles susceptible to cramps. I recommend you sleep lying down on your back with a pillow or teddy between your knees or allow one leg to hang out of the bed.
6. Don’t tuck yourself in
Tucking your body with a comfortable duvet may increase the severity of your cramps. The reason is – heavy sheets can force your feet down as you sleep. Instead, choose light and loose sheets that will allow your legs to stay upright as you sleep.
When should you see a doctor about your leg cramp?
Leg cramps are usually not serious, and they usually fade away without needing treatment. However, when your leg cramps last longer than 10 minutes or you feel numb in your leg afterward, you should see your doctor.
If you can’t pinpoint the cause of your Charley horses, you should also see your doctor – It may be the symptom of an underlying disease. Once the source of your leg cramps is treated, your nocturnal cramps may disappear.
Leg cramps at night can be excruciating, especially since the pain is sudden and disrupts your sweet sleep. Luckily, they aren’t usually a cause for concern. In fact, in most cases, they can be prevented.