Leg cramps – also know as night cramps or Charley Horse – are painful spasms that typically occur in the calf muscles. Leg cramps tend to jolt a person awake in the middle of the night, but can also strike in the daytime during physical activities such as running and cycling. Fitness can put strain on your leg muscles. Some leg muscle cramps – which can last anywhere from a few seconds to up to 10 minutes – may also be the result of a sedentary lifestyle.
What Causes Muscle Cramps in the Calves?
“Leg cramps can be caused by many conditions, ranging simply from dehydration to something much more serious such as kidney disease,” said physical therapist Matthew Hyland, president of the New York Physical Therapy Association and co-owner of Rye Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation. “Cramps often result from vigorous exercise, trauma to the muscle, or keeping the leg in an awkward position for too long, such as sitting in a crowded theater. Other causes can include medications such as birth control, diuretics (which are often prescribed for people with high blood pressure) and steroids. A lack of potassium or calcium can also be the underlying cause, as well as cold weather.”
Major Causes of Muscle Cramps and Prevention Tips with Dave Erickson Wendy Mader
Acute leg cramps frequently are confused with restless legs syndrome (RLS). But RLS is a different and more serious, chronic condition characterized by discomfort and persistent throbbing and pulling sensations in the legs.
How to Prevent Leg Cramps
There are a number ways you can alleviate nighttime leg cramps. “Once leg cramps set in, the best method to relieve them is movement, either walking around or simply jiggling or shaking your leg,” advised Hyland. “In addition, things like pumping your ankles up and down or rubbing the muscles can help as well.”
Some people with chronic leg cramps have found relief using cool compresses, which work by numbing pain and reducing soreness. But Hyland said anyone who regularly suffers leg cramps should also work to strengthen their muscles, which will make cramps less frequent.
“Our musculoskeletal system hits its peak at the age of 20, and while it maintains its peak for an additional 20 years, the reality is that it begins to break down at age 40,” he said. “This includes muscles becoming less flexible. Once we pass into the fourth decade of life, it is critical we play an active role in stretching and strengthening our bodies to maintain appropriate, maximal health.” He added that it may be best to consult a physician if leg cramps last for 5 to 10 minutes or occur multiple times a week.
What to Take for Muscle Cramps
Analgesic balm or a patch, both sold over-the-counter at pharmacies, can provide further relief. OTC pain relief medications that are formulated to treat menstrual cramps, such a Pamprin and Midol, can be an effective treatment for bad leg cramps.
You may also be able to prevent or alleviate muscle cramps in your legs by making simple lifestyle changes. Drinking plenty of water is essential, since cramps are often caused by dehydration. A healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can also help to decrease the frequency of leg cramps.
Vitamins and Minerals: Potassium and Magnesium for Muscle Cramps
Additionally, certain vitamins and minerals impact muscle function, particularly potassium and magnesium. A significant body of research has found that increasing your magnesium intake can help with the frequency of night time leg cramps, especially for pregnant women. Health experts recommend getting at least 300 milligrams of magnesium each day. A supplement can help you reach your daily allowance, but so can eating foods rich in magnesium, such as nuts, lentils, and quinoa.
Plan ahead for self-care if your leg cramps appear to be the result of strenuous exercise. Drink plenty of fluids and eat a well-balanced meal before heading out for a long run. Many athletes suggest eating a potassium-rich banana once you reach the finish line.
By Jessica Firger. Jessica is a staff writer at Newsweek, where she covers all things health. She previously worked as a health editor at CBSnews.com and Everyday Health. Before taking on the medical beat, she was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal‘s metro section and was the lead on-the-ground reporter for the paper’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Jessica has also written for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Salon, Elle and Marie Claire, among others. She’s a native New Yorker.