After a long day at the office, you’d likely want nothing more than to go home, relax, and get a good night’s sleep. But for some people, sleep is nearly impossible due to painful spasms in their legs. Nighttime leg cramps—also called nocturnal leg cramps—can jolt a person awake in the middle of the night. Leg cramps can strike during the day as well, especially during physical activities.
Antibiotics may not always do the trick, so many people turn to more natural ways of dealing with pain.
Common Causes of Nighttime Leg Cramps
Although pregnant women and the elderly are more susceptible to nighttime leg cramps, almost anyone could experience them. In many cases, nighttime leg cramps are harmless and will occur for no apparent reason. Nighttime leg cramps can sometimes be attributed to muscle fatigue or nerve problems. In rare cases, nighttime leg cramps can be the symptom of an underlying disorder, such as artery disease.
Other factors that can contribute to nighttime leg cramps include:
- Medications and procedures: Cholesterol-lowering drugs, blood pressure drugs, estrogens, naproxen, and intravenous iron have strongly been linked to nighttime leg cramps. A dialysis procedure (removing waste and excess water from the blood) can also cause leg cramps.
- Other conditions: Dehydration, diarrhea and osteoarthritis
- Metabolic conditions: Type 1 and type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cirrhosis, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Natural Ways to Treat Nighttime Leg Cramps
- Valerian and skullcap herbs: Skullcap is a treatment for anxiety and insomnia. It is usually taken in combination with another natural sleep aid, like valerian. Both will calm the muscles and reduce the leg pain.
- Evening primrose oil: Evening primrose oil is used for many conditions, such as acne, high cholesterol, heart disease, and eczema. It also has the potential to help treat leg cramps and pain. The recommended dose is three to four grams daily.
- Apply a hot compress to the area: Apply a hot water bottle or heating pad to the pained area. This will help loosen up the muscle and ease the cramp. If you don’t have a heating pad, try applying a large amount of Vicks VapoRub ointment to the area. The cooling effect will help relieve the cramp.
- Magnesium supplements: Some studies show that magnesium deficiency could lead to leg cramps. Opt for anywhere between 300 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg each day. Consult with your doctor first.
- Potassium: A potassium deficiency could potentially lead to nighttime leg cramps. Try adding more potassium-rich food sources to your diet, such as bananas, apricots, grapes, oranges, cabbages, and nectarines.
- Stay hydrated: Nighttime leg cramps can result from not consuming enough water. Always make sure you are getting enough water throughout the day. You should try to consume at least eight glasses of water (eight ounces each) per day. To easily tell if you are consuming enough water, look at the color of your urine. Clear urine is a sign of good hydration while yellowish urine is a sign that you are not completely hydrated.
- Stay away from tight bed sheets: You might not realize this, but tight bed sheets can cause you to point your toes downward while you’re sleeping. This can trigger calf cramps. Use looser sheets and covers. If you cramp up, pull your toes upwards towards your body.
Stretches to Treat Nighttime Leg Cramps
If you are experiencing nighttime leg cramps, try some of the following stretches before you go to bed (or right after the leg cramp occurs, if you feel capable of performing them):
- Stretch your legs toward the wall: Lie down on your side (the opposite side of the leg cramp) and face the wall. Extend the leg that is cramped all the way out until it touches the wall. Hold that position for 20-30 seconds before bringing it back.
- Stretch your calves using a towel: Place your cramped leg in a towel and stretch the towel out horizontally. Fold the towel in half, so that it encloses the part of the leg that has the cramp. Next, grab the open end of the towel and hug it. This type of stretch compresses the leg as well as massages it, which should help relieve the cramp.
- Stretch your inner calf: Keep the cramped leg forward with your foot flat on the floor. Extend your opposite leg straight back, while placing your heel flat on the floor. Try not to bend your back knee. Lean into the wall until you feel the stretch in the calf of the cramped leg. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Firger, J., “What Causes Leg Cramps and How Can You Stop Them?” Everyday Health web site, last updated August 1, 2013; http://www.everydayhealth.com/pain-management/what-causes-leg-cramps-and-how-can-you-stop-them.aspx, last accessed September 24, 2015.
“How to Eliminate Leg Cramps at Night,” Wiki How web site; http://www.wikihow.com/Eliminate-Leg-Cramps-at-Night, last accessed September 24, 2015.
“Night leg cramps,” Mayo Clinic web site, February 20, 2013; http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/night-leg-cramps/basics/causes/sym-20050813.
“Water: How much should you drink every day?” Mayo Clinic web site, September 5, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256.
“Quinine,” Wikipedia web site; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinine, last accessed September 24, 2015.