Definition

What is leg cramps?

Leg cramps are a common and usually harmless condition where the muscles in your leg suddenly become tight and painful.

The cramp usually only lasts a few minutes, sometimes a few seconds. Rarely though, they can last up to 10 minutes. Sometimes the pain is so severe that the patient is woken up and has a tender muscle for up to 24 hours afterwards.

How common is leg cramps?

As we get older we become more prone to experiencing leg cramps – about 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 years and half of people over 80 has regular leg cramps. Pregnant women tend to have night leg cramps more often than non-pregnant women. Approximately 40% of people who get leg cramps do so at least three times a week; in some cases they occur daily.

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of leg cramps?

Most leg cramps occur in the calf muscles and, less commonly, in the feet and thighs.

Cramps can last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes. Thigh muscle cramps tend to last the longest.

During a cramping episode, the affected muscles will become tight and painful and the feet and toes will be stiff.

After the cramps have passed, you may have pain and tenderness in your legs for several hours.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you only get leg cramps occasionally, it is not a cause for concern and a medical diagnosis is not required.

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • You get leg cramps frequently, or if they are so painful they disrupt your sleep and you are unable to function normally the next day.
  • The muscles in your legs are shrinking or becoming weaker.

There are two situations where leg cramps may be a sign of a more serious underlying health condition.

You should seek immediate medical help if:

  • The cramps last longer than 10 minutes and fail to improve, despite exercise.
  • Cramps develop after you come into contact with substances that could be toxic (poisonous) or infectious, for example, if you have a cut that is contaminated with soil, which can sometimes cause a bacterial infection, such as tetanus, or after being exposed to elements such as mercury or lead.

Causes

What causes leg cramps?

Unknown causes (idiopathic leg cramps) – in the majority of cases there is no underlying cause and we don’t really know why it happens. One theory is that when a muscle tightens for a prolonged period, resulting in the muscle being shortened, it is stimulated to contract, causing it to go into a spasm (cramp) if it contracts further. This occurs more commonly while we are sleeping – our natural sleep position is with the knees slightly bent and the feet pointing downwards (shortening the calf muscle). The fact that stretching helps cure the problem makes the theory more compelling.

Secondary causes – sometimes the leg cramps are caused by an underlying disease, situation or activity, including:

  • Exercise – if a muscle is placed under severe stress or used for a long time a leg cramp may occur during the exertion or afterwards. Athletes and sportspeople commonly suffer from leg cramps, especially when having to work for longer than expected, as may happen in a soccer match that goes into extra time. If conditions are warm and the athlete has sweated profusely and lost a lot of sodium (salt), the risk of developing a muscle cramp is greater.
  • Addison’s disease
  • Alcoholism or alcohol abuse
  • Cirrhosis
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Diuretics
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Flatfeet
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Kidney failure, chronic
  • Lead poisoning
  • Sarcoidosis – a disease in which granulomatous (small growths or lumps) produces inflammation or swelling of the tissues in any part of the body.
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Motor neuron problems
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
  • Pregnancy, especially in the later stages
  • Some medications, including diuretics, salbutamol (used for treating asthma), and statins (used to lower blood lipid levels)
  • Type 2 diabetes

Risk factors

What increases my risk for leg cramps?

Your are more prone to leg cramps if you are:

  • adults over 60 – it is thought that a third of people over 60 experience leg cramps; about 40% of these have three or more cramps a week
  • pregnant women – about a third of pregnant women have leg cramps, usually during the last trimester of pregnancy (week 27 to the birth)

Consult with your doctor for more information about risk factors for leg cramps.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is leg cramps diagnosed?

A GP (general practitioner, primary care physician) will ask the patient about symptoms, when they occur, as well as examining his/her legs and feet. Questions will be related to how severe the pain is, where the pain is located, how long it lasts, and whether the leg cramps affect their quality of life (sleep, moods, etc).

The doctor will also ask about other possible symptoms, such as inflammation, numbness or pins and needles. The aim here is to either rule out or identify any possible underlying cause.

How is leg cramps treated?

If there is no underlying cause the leg cramps will probably get better without treatment.

Stretching exercises – if the cramp is in the calf muscle:

Straighten the leg and bend the ankle backwards, thus stretching the calf muscle.

Walk on tiptoes for a few minutes.

Stand about one meter from a wall with your feet flat on the ground. Lean forward against the wall with your arms outstretched, but don’t lift your heels (keep your heels on the ground). Stay like that for about ten seconds and gently return to an upright position. Repeat about 5 to 10 times.

Some people find that these stretching exercises not only help them get over a leg cramp episode, but also that help reduce how often they occur. Typically, a patient would do these exercises two or three times a day.

Painkillers – although painkillers can be effective in reducing pain, they take time to work. By the time they start working the leg cramp is probably gone. Therefore, they are probably not very useful. If an individual had a severe leg cramp and the muscle is tender afterwards, an OTC (over-the-counter, non prescription required) painkiller may help.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage leg cramps?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with leg cramps:

Stretching exercises

These may help reduce the number of times leg cramps occur.

Supporting your toes

When lying down or asleep:

  • Lying on your back – prop up your feet with a pillow/cushion.
  • Lying on your front – let your feet hang over the end of the bed.
  • Bedding – keep blankets and sheets loose. This helps prevent your feet and toes from pointing downwards during sleep.

Stay hydrated

As dehydration may increase the risk of leg cramps, drinking plenty of fluids may help prevent them.

Exercise

If you embark on an exercise program, make sure it is suitable for you and that your progress is gradual. If you want to prevent leg cramps from occurring, do not over-exert yourself, or train for prolonged periods.

Footwear

People with flat feet and other structural problems may be more susceptible to leg cramps. Proper footwear may help.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 18, 2017 | Last Modified: October 18, 2017

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