Nighttime leg cramps, nocturnal leg cramps, and a “charley horse” are all names for that painful, involuntary contraction (spasm) in your leg muscles. The hard lump you feel at the point of pain is the contracted muscle. Leg cramps most commonly occur in the calves and hamstrings, though they can occur in the feet and thighs. The contractions can also occur in just about any other muscle.
If leg cramps happen at night, they tend to jolt a person awake. They can also strike in the daytime during physical exertion, such as running and cycling. The tight, knotted sensation of a leg cramp can last a few seconds to several minutes. Sometimes the pain may linger. If the cramp is severe, the muscle may be sore for days afterward.
Men and women are equally prone to leg cramps. While they can strike people of all ages, those over the age of 50 may get them more often.
Causes of Nighttime Leg Cramps
Nighttime leg cramps seem to come out of nowhere. Beginning in the mid-40s, less active people have a higher likelihood of having night leg cramps. Older people, with less muscle mass, are more likely to experience leg cramps. Sometimes leg cramps may be the result of a sedentary lifestyle.
Doctors have several theories as to the cause of nighttime leg cramps. Some of the theories include:
- Muscle fatigue.
- Nerve dysfunction.
- Inadequate blood flow to a muscle.
- An out-stretched foot during sleep that shortens calf muscles.
- The brain mistakenly telling the leg to move while dreaming.
- People no longer squat as much today, which stretches calf muscles.
Leg cramps can result from numerous lifestyle and medical conditions, such as:
- A lack of minerals like potassium, magnesium, or calcium.
- A side effect from medication.
- Alcohol abuse.
- Addison’s disease. A disorder in which the adrenal glands fail to produce enough hormones.
- Blood pressure drugs.
- Cancer treatment.
- Chronic kidney failure.
- Gastric bypass surgery.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).
- Hypokalemia (an abnormally low concentration of potassium in the blood).
- Maintaining an awkward leg position for an extended time (e.g., watching a movie or riding in an airplane).
- Nerve damage, as from cancer treatments.
- Parkinson’s disease (a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement).
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD).
- Pregnancy (especially later stages).
- Trauma to a muscle.
- Vascular disease and venous insufficiency.
- Vigorous exercise.
Restless legs syndrome can often be confused with nighttime leg cramps, but this is a different condition.
Treatment for Nighttime Leg Cramps
In most cases, it is possible to care for leg cramps at home. If there is no underlying cause, the leg cramps will probably get better without treatment. Often, stretching the contracted muscle and massaging the affected area is beneficial. If the pain is severe, the application of ice can also help.
If the cramping is a sign of another problem, addressing the underlying issue may help. If leg cramps occur often, and for no apparent reason, it is important to see a doctor.
Some home treatments you can try during and after a leg cramp include:
- Get Moving. Often the best thing to do for a leg cramp is to walk, which tells the muscle it needs to contract and relax.
- Stop any activity that may have induced the cramp and lightly stretch the muscle.
- Hot Soak. Many athletes and physical therapists recommend magnesium in the form of Epsom salts. This remedy can be applied to a wet cloth and pressed onto the cramped muscle or added to a hot bath. Heat may provide relief with or without Epsom salts. The dry heat of a heating pad may also help.
- Ice Pack. While heating pads accelerate the relaxation process, an ice pack will help numb the pain.
- OTC Pain Relief. Over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic balms or patches available at most pharmacies can provide relief. Painkillers usually are too slow-acting to be useful for a leg cramp. When a severe cramp leaves a muscle feeling tender, an OTC painkiller may help after the cramp has ended.
Quinine, as a treatment for leg cramps, is no longer recommended. A 2010 warning by the FDA about quinine detailed the potentially dangerous interactions and side effects of quinine that outweigh the modest benefits.
How to Help Prevent Nighttime Leg Cramps
Several home remedies may help alleviate nighttime leg cramps. If you regularly suffer leg cramps, strengthening the leg muscles will help make them less frequent. Other simple things you can do to help prevent leg cramps include:
- Diet. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods high in vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. What you’ve heard about eating bananas is correct. Besides being a good source of potassium, bananas also contain magnesium and calcium. Sweet potatoes also have potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
- Magnesium. Increasing magnesium intake can lessen the frequency of nighttime leg cramps, especially for pregnant women. Health experts recommend getting at least 300 milligrams of magnesium each day. A supplement can help, in addition to eating foods rich in magnesium like nuts, lentils, and quinoa.
- Hydration. Drink plenty of water. Being adequately hydrated helps the body better process the minerals from foods and supplements.
- Stretch and Exercise. Stretch the calf and foot muscles during the day, and stretch before bedtime. Implement an age-appropriate exercise program with guidance from your doctor. Simply moving about during the day helps exercise your feet and legs.
If you suffer frequent and severe leg cramps, talk to a doctor to make sure there’s not an underlying health problem causing the cramps.
Novus Spine & Pain Center
The Novus Spine & Pain Center is in Lakeland, Florida, and specializes in treating nighttime leg cramps. By using a comprehensive approach and cutting-edge therapies, we work together with patients to restore function and regain an active lifestyle, while minimizing the need for opiates.
Our Mission Statement: To provide the best quality of life to people suffering from pain, by providing state of the art treatments, knowledge and skill, compassion, and respect for all.
Nighttime Leg Cramps Resources
Why is My Leg Cramping? What Can Help? (WebMD)
Leg Cramps (WebMD)
Leg Cramps at Night (Cleveland Clinic)
Causes and Treatment for Leg Cramps (Medical News Today)
Night Leg Cramps (Mayo Clinic)
What Causes Leg Cramps and How Can You Stop Them? (Everyday Health)
How to Stop Leg Muscle Cramps (Healthline)
Noctrunal Leg Cramps (American Family Physician)
Charley Horse (Healthline)
What Causes Leg Cramps? (Healthline)
Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (PubMed)
Muscle Cramps (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons)
Muscle Cramp (Mayo Clinic)
Foods that May help with Muscle Cramps (WebMD)