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Leg Cramps - Causes, Treatment and Prevention

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Leg Cramps -  Causes, Treatment and Prevention

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Leg cramps are sudden, intense muscle pains that usually occur in the calf, thigh, or feet. Read the article to understand more about leg cramps.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Reetika

Published At February 23, 2022
Reviewed AtMay 21, 2024

Introduction:

Leg cramps, also called Charley horses, are a common problem affecting the feet, thigh muscles, and calves. They suddenly cause painful, involuntary contractions of a leg muscle.

Leg cramps most commonly occur when a person is resting or sleeping. They go away within a few seconds, but the normal duration for a leg cramp is 10 minutes. They can cause muscle tenderness for a day after it appears.

They are harmless, but the reason why leg cramps happen all of a sudden is unknown. Sometimes, they can indicate underlying conditions, such as diabetes.

What Causes Leg Cramps?

In most cases, the reason for leg cramps to happen is unknown. The following are some of the reasons; they are,

  1. Nerve dysfunction and muscle fatigue may play a role.

  2. Sleeping or relaxing with the foot stretched and calf muscles shortened may be a cause.

  3. It is also said that cramps are more likely to occur nowadays because most people do not squat, which is a position that stretches the calf muscles.

  4. Continuous use of a muscle for a long time may induce a leg cramp during or after the exertion.

  5. Performing strenuous exercise can also cause leg cramps.

  6. Athletes most often get muscle cramps, especially when the body is out of condition and when they start the practice after a long time.

  7. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances may trigger leg cramps.

  8. Elderly people are more likely to get leg cramps because muscle loss starts in the 40s and increases when they are inactive. It is said that 7 percent of children and 50 to 60 percent of adults experience leg cramps, and the likelihood increases with age.

  9. Certain medications may also increase the risk of leg cramps; they are:

  •  
    • Conjugated estrogens.
    • Iron sucrose.
    • Naproxen.
    • Raloxifene.
    • Teriparatide.

Sometimes, leg cramps occur due to underlying conditions relating to the circulation, nervous system, hormones, or metabolism. Some of the conditions causing leg cramps are:

What Does a Leg Cramp Feel Like?

The person experiencing a leg cramp feels like being held by something, tightening of the muscle like a knot and muscle contraction. It causes a sudden piercing pain, which is unbearable and severely uncomfortable. After the cramp goes away, the muscle in the area might hurt for hours.

What Are the Home Remedies to Treat Leg Cramps?

The following steps help to ease the cramping; they are,

  • Do not indulge in activities that cause leg cramps.

  • Massage and stretch the muscle around the area.

  • When the cramp occurs, the leg should be in an extended position until the cramp stops.

  • Apply heat in the area where the muscles are tight or tense.

  • Use cold packs on the areas where the muscles are tender.

In order to reduce muscle cramps, some people use supplements such as magnesium. For pregnant women, it is unknown whether these supplements help or not.

How Are Leg Cramps Treated?

When severe leg cramps occur, leaving a muscle feeling tender, then an over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller is needed. Before, people used Quinine, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urges people not to use this medicine because it may have dangerous interactions and side effects. During pregnancy, multivitamins may also be helpful. Still, there is no proper evidence that exercise, stretching, Carisoprodol, calcium channel blockers, and vitamin B-12 supplements may help with leg cramps.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), potassium, or calcium supplements are not found to be of any benefit, and in order to prevent leg cramps, no medication is needed. The following are some methods to treat leg muscle cramps.

Exercises and Stretches:

When there is no underlying cause that causes this condition, then leg cramps will probably get better on their own without treatment. Leg cramps can be relieved by walking on tiptoes as it helps to stretch the muscles.

Leg Cramps

In addition, stretching exercises may help, and when the cramp is in the calf muscle, try to do the following stretches.

Hamstring Muscle Stretch:

First, sit on the floor. Stretch the legs straight in front. Then, pull the toes upward towards the knee so that it stretches the calf muscle. Hold this position for at least half a minute and then relax.

Calf Muscle Stretch:

Place both feet flat on the ground and stand about 3.33 feet away from the wall. Then, lean forward against the wall with hands flat on the wall and arms outstretched. Hold this position for 10 seconds, and then slowly return to the normal position. Repeat this stretch 5 to 10 times a day.

Quadriceps Muscle Stretch:

This stretch needs a chair or a wall to hold or support, and the person is asked to stand up straight. One foot should be pulled up toward the buttocks, grasp the foot and ankle, and hold it as far as possible. Hold this position close to the body for 30 seconds, and then repeat with the other foot.

All these exercises help to relieve and prevent cramps. They also serve as a warm-up before practicing an exercise.

How to Prevent Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps can be prevented by the following measures.

  1. It is always better to support the toes when sleeping or lying down with a pillow and by propping up the feet.

  2. Always sleep in a spongy bed to help prevent the toes and feet from positioning downward during sleep.

  3. When one has foot problems or flat feet, wear suitable footwear during the day.

  4. Get enough exercise to keep the body fit. Exercise should not be strenuous, and make sure the program is suitable and the progress is gradual.

  5. Avoid training for prolonged periods, and it is important to warm up before exercise.

How to Relieve Severe Leg Cramps at Night?

For night leg cramps, there are some potential options for medicines to take. They are:

  • The frequency and intensity of leg cramps can be reduced by using Quinine sulfate. As it may have side-effects, it should be used with caution.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers like Acetaminophen can help to alleviate pain associated with leg cramps.

  • Magnesium supplements can help relax muscles and prevent cramping.

  • Calcium channel blockers are usually used to treat high blood pressure but are also helpful in reducing leg cramps.

Conclusion:

A leg cramp is a common problem that usually happens for an unknown reason. Stretching, holding, and massaging the area around the muscle can often bring relief. When the cramps are severe and frequent, consider consulting a doctor

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

What Deficiency Causes Leg Cramps?

Vitamin D and calcium deficiency are the main reasons to cause of muscle cramps and joint pains. Magnesium and potassium deficiency can also contribute to leg cramps. Studies also show vitamin B and B12 deficiency cause muscle and leg cramps.

2.

When Should One Be Worried About Leg Cramps?

One should be worried about leg cramps, which could indicate several underlying medical conditions and vitamin deficiencies. Though leg cramps are usually harmless, increased frequency and intensity could indicate severe conditions.

3.

What Causes Leg Cramps While Sleeping at Night?

The following conditions can cause leg cramps at night:
 - Low fluid intake and severe dehydration.
 - Diarrhea.
 - Muscle fatigue.
 - Nerve damage from cancer treatments.
 - Osteoarthritis.
 - Parkinson's disease (nervous system disorder).
 - Pregnancy.
 - Certain drugs and underlying medical conditions.

4.

What Are the Common Causes of Leg Cramps?

Nerve dysfunction and muscle fatigue, sleeping or relaxing with the foot stretched and shortened calf muscles. Continuous muscle use for a long time and strenuous exercise can also be a factor for leg cramps, exercising after a long time. Other causes of leg cramps linked to medical conditions are liver cirrhosis, hemodialysis, chronic kidney failure, post-cancer treatments, vascular diseases, pregnancy, spinal nerve irritation and compression, motor neuron disease, Parkinson's disease, restless leg syndrome, spinal stenosis, thyroid diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

5.

Do Leg Cramps Indicate Heart Problems?

Yes, leg cramps could indicate compromised heart health. Pain in the leg can be a sign of a severe health issue involving the heart. If an individual is at high risk of developing heart disease, the leg pain could be due to peripheral artery disease (PAD). Peripheral artery disease is associated with many causes and risk factors linked to coronary artery disease (CAD) and can also be an early sign of a heart attack.

6.

Can Leg Cramps Damage the Leg Permanently?

Leg cramps are involuntary muscle contractions and are common. But even if leg cramps appear extremely discomforting and painful, they don't usually cause damage. Severe leg cramps or leg cramps that persist for longer may damage the muscle tissues. Leg cramps cause tearing of the muscle fibers due to the shear forces that result from involuntary contractions. This causes strain on the calf muscles. If this happens, the muscles tend to become fatigued and painful.

7.

Are Night Leg Cramps Serious?

Leg cramps at night can be excruciating, but they are not usually serious. Most people who experience leg cramps at night do not need medical treatment. Night leg cramps are likely related to muscle fatigue and nerve problems. As age advances, there is an increased risk of night leg cramps. Pregnant women also have a higher risk of experiencing leg cramps during the night.

8.

Are Leg Cramps Neurological?

Yes, there are many neurological causes of leg cramps. Conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), peripheral neuropathies, and cramp-fasciculation syndrome are commonly associated with leg cramps. Anxiety, severe stress, and other psychological conditions may also aggravate the condition.

9.

Can High Blood Pressure Cause Leg Cramps?

High blood pressure can cause pain, fatigue, and cramping in the legs due to insufficient muscle flow. High blood pressure damages the walls of the blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels and fatty deposits, called plaque, can build up, causing blood vessels to become narrow and making it difficult for blood to flow around the body.

10.

Are Leg Cramps Related to Stress?

Anxiety can cause tension within the muscles. Muscle tension often leads to severe strain on the muscles. One must recognize the signs of muscle strain. Anxiety and stress can cause tightness, soreness, and muscle spasms, often resulting in leg cramps.

11.

What's the Fastest Way to Get Rid of Leg Cramps?

The fastest way to eliminate muscle cramps is to use a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath or directing the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle also helps in instant relief. Massaging the cramped muscle with cold packs or ice may relieve pain.
Dr. Reetika
Dr. Reetika

Obstetrics and Gynecology

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leg cramps
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