We’ve all experienced cramping in various parts of our bodies before. The onset is sudden and the pain can range from mild to severe, but they are usually temporary and do not cause any damages. While this type of cramping may be common, most individuals do not experience it all that often. If you are experiencing leg cramps during the night, however, you may be dealing with a different type of condition.
Nocturnal leg cramps are a painful sensation that occur in the lower extremities and during the night. They are often triggered in your sleep, but the pain can be so severe sometimes that you are jolted out of slumber from it. Like regular muscle cramps, they can last from several seconds to a few minutes. While they usually occur in your sleep, they can also be triggered while you’re awake at night, usually after a period of inactivity. Nocturnal leg cramps are most often present in the calf muscles, but they have been known to occur in the thighs or feet as well.
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According to American Family Physician, 50 to 60 percent of adults and 7 percent of children have reported experiencing nocturnal leg cramps in the past, so they are not as uncommon as you might think. While men and women appear to be equally affected, this condition is more prevalent in individuals aged 50 and over.
Nocturnal leg cramps are frequently confused with restless leg syndrome, but the two are quite different. The latter is not usually associated with pain or cramping, but rather a discomfort or a crawling sensation that triggers the affected individual to move the leg. When the leg is in motion, the feeling of restlessness is temporarily relieved, but the discomfort will resurface once the movements cease. Nocturnal leg cramps, on the other hand, can be more painful and debilitating, so it is important to learn the difference between the two.
In most cases, it is still uncertain what causes nocturnal leg cramps. The Mayo Clinic believes that night leg cramps could likely be attributed to muscle fatigue and nerve problems. According to the Cleveland Clinic, incidents of nocturnal leg cramping have been associated with:
- Prolonged period of sitting or inactivity
- Overexertion of the leg muscles
- Standing on concrete floors for an extended period
- Poor/improper sitting positions
In addition, there are a number of medical conditions and medications that could also be linked to the onset of nocturnal leg cramps, including but not limited to:
- Dehydration/electrolyte imbalances
- Parkinson’s disease
- Neuromuscular disorders (e.g., neuropathy, myopathy, motor neuron disease)
- Structural disorders (e.g., flat feet, peripheral artery disease, spinal stenosis)
- Endocrine disorders (e.g., diabetes, hypothyroidism)
- Metabolic problems (e.g., acute kidney failure, anemia, chronic kidney disease, Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes)
Seeking Medical Attention
Like regular cramps, nocturnal leg cramps are sometimes nothing more than a temporary irritant that may or may not interrupt your sleep. However, if you experience severe, debilitating, and persistent cramping, then you should see a medical professional immediately. Also, if your night leg cramps occur after being exposed to a toxin, such as lead, you should go to the emergency room as soon as possible.
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Although not requiring immediate medical attention, you should also consult your doctor if frequent nocturnal leg cramps are interfering with your sleep and impairing your ability to execute day-to-day activities, or if you begin to experience muscle weakness or atrophy in your legs.
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Should you experience persistent nocturnal leg cramps, the Cleveland Clinic suggests that you treat any underlying causes first, if applicable. In pregnant women, magnesium supplements have helped in some cases. Other people have found some relief in vitamin B complex and vitamin E supplements. In more extreme cases, Mount Sinai Hospital recommends muscle relaxants, calcium channel blockers, and anticonvulsants (as directed by your physician).
At one point in time, the medication quinine was widely recommended to treat nocturnal leg cramps, but it has been found to pose serious and life-threatening risks to individuals, such as major allergic reactions, cardiac arrhythmias, thrombocytopenia, and hypersensitivity reactions. Therefore, quinine is no longer recommended.
If you are experiencing nocturnal leg cramps but they are not severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room, there are certain things that you can do at home to assuage the pain. Mount Sinai Hospital recommends stretching out your leg muscles while experiencing the cramp, putting pressure on the affected leg by standing on it and walking, massaging the leg, or applying hot or cold treatments on the muscles.
You can also try taking a hot shower or bath, or flexing the affected foot upward, pointing it toward your head.
Harvard Health Publications
Although we have not established a definitive cause for nocturnal leg cramps, the following activities may help to reduce the risk of experiencing them:
- Consume sufficient fluids throughout the day to avoid dehydration and electrolyte deficiency
- Give your leg muscles a good stretch right before going to bed
- Ensure that your bed covers are not tucked in at the foot of your bed, so that your legs have room to move around throughout the night
- Exercise your lower extremities regularly
- Wear comfortable shoes
With this information, you should be able to minimize your risk of experiencing nocturnal leg cramps. They may be similar to regular cramps, but do not take them lightly if they persist or become severe – seek medical attention immediately!
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