Leg cramps at night can be one of the most frustrating and debilitating experiences. Not only do they cause intense pain, but they also disrupt your sleep and make it difficult to get a good night’s rest.
The most common causes of leg cramps at night are dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, or overactivity of the muscles. Fortunately, you can take some simple steps to help alleviate or even prevent these cramps, including stretching, exercising, and drinking plenty of fluids.
You can reduce the frequency and severity of these cramps with a few simple changes and get a better night’s sleep. Additionally, Understanding the causes and identifying potential triggers can go a long way in helping to prevent them. This article will discuss 15 common causes of leg cramps at night with Treatment.
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 the 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, they 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, cross your legs, or allow your toes to point downward for a long time, your calf muscles shorten and could cause cramping.
4. Standing for an extended period
Our muscles were made to stretch, contract, and rest. So naturally, if you do too much of one and ignore the other, you may experience leg cramps.
Traffic wardens, waiters, and others who 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 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 sleep quality. 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 leg cramps at night, lack of sleep may worsen the pain and increase the frequency of late-night cramps. I recommend you take muscle relaxers or do a little exercise before bed.
When your muscles are overworked, 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. Occasionally, your leg cramps could be a symptom of an underlying disease.
Diabetes can lead to several complications, including 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 triggering 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
Aside from morning sickness and nausea, leg cramps are significant pregnancy symptoms. 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 in 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 in 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 correctly and stay healthy.
When one of these minerals is deficient, 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 painkillers in your local drug store.
1. Take your vitamins
A deficiency of 1 or 2 vitamins, especially calcium, magnesium, and potassium, 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 to move 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.
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 affect your calf muscles, you can stretch your legs until they are straight. Make sure your toes are pointing towards your body.
- You can walk on your heels if the cramps are affecting other leg muscles. 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 standard 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, you can take steps to avoid uncomfortable leg cramps at night. However, in some cases, preventing leg cramps may not be possible.
1. Moderate exercise
You can cut back on your gym time if you always experience leg cramps after running marathons or staying in the gym for too long. Alternatively, if you’re always stagnant during the day, make a conscious effort to do 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 get off to bed, stretching your leg muscles will help prevent leg cramping at night. If you don’t know how to try, I recommend you sit down and pretend you’re riding an imaginary bike.
Once you stretch for a few minutes will help you relax your muscles and avoid involuntary spasms.
5. Change your sleeping position
The position you sleep in also substantially affects the frequency of your leg cramps. Avoid sleeping positions where your feet point away from your body to prevent leg cramps.
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 allow your legs to stay upright as you sleep.
When should you see a doctor about your leg cramp?
Leg cramps are usually not severe and usually fade away without needing treatment. However, when your leg cramps last longer than 10 minutes or you feel numb 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, significantly, since the sudden pain disrupts sleep. Luckily, they aren’t usually a cause for concern. In fact, in most cases, they can be prevented.