Definition

What is muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is a strong, painful contraction or tightening of a muscle that comes on suddenly and lasts from a few seconds to several minutes. It often occurs in the legs.

Nighttime leg cramps are usually sudden spasms or tightening of muscles in the calf. The muscle cramps can sometimes happen in the thigh or the foot. They often occur just as you are falling asleep or waking up.

Long periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly in hot weather, can lead to muscle cramps. Some medications and certain medical conditions also may cause muscle cramps. You usually can treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures.

How common is muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is extremely common. It can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of muscle cramp?

Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.

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?

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

  • Cause severe discomfort;
  • Are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes;
  • Are associated with muscle weakness;
  • Happen frequently;
  • Don’t improve with self-care;
  • Aren’t associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise.

Causes

What causes muscle cramp?

  • Exercising, injury or overuse of muscles.
  • Pregnancy: cramps may occur because of decreasing amounts of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, especially in the later months of pregnancy.
  • Exposure to cold temperatures, especially to cold water.
  • Other medical conditions, such as blood flow problems (peripheral arterial disease), kidney disease, thyroid disease, and multiple sclerosis.
  • Standing on a hard surface for a long time, sitting for a long time, or putting your legs in awkward positions while you sleep.
  • Not having enough potassium, calcium, and other minerals in your blood.
  • Being dehydrated, which means that your body has lost too much fluid.
  • Taking certain medicines, such as antipsychotics, birth control pills, diuretics, statins, and steroids.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for muscle cramp?

There are many risk factors for muscle cramp, such as:

  • Age: older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.
  • Dehydration: athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
  • Pregnancy: muscle cramps are also common during pregnancy.
  • Medical conditions: you might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.

Diagnosis & treatment

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

How is muscle cramp diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your affected areas. They may also ask if you have other symptoms, such as numbness or swelling, which may be a sign that you have secondary muscle cramps caused by an underlying condition.

In this case, you may need further tests, such as blood tests and urine tests, to rule out other conditions.

How is muscle cramp treated?

A cramp usually lasts for a few seconds to minutes. Most cases of leg cramps can be relieved by exercising the affected muscles. Exercising your legs during the day will often help reduce how often you get cramping episodes.

To stretch your calf muscles, stand with the front half of your feet on a step, with your heels hanging off the edge. Slowly lower your heels so that they are below the level of the step. Hold for a few seconds before lifting your heels back up to the starting position. Repeat a number of times.

Medication is usually only needed in the most persistent cases where cramping does not respond to exercise. If you have secondary leg cramps, treating the underlying cause may help relieve your symptoms.

Leg cramps that occur during pregnancy should pass after the baby is born.

Treating cramps that occur as a result of serious liver disease can be more difficult. Your treatment plan may include using medications such as muscle relaxants.

However, if cramps keep coming back, bother you a lot, or interfere with your sleep, your doctor may prescribe medicine that relaxes your muscles. If you are taking medicines that are known to cause leg cramps, your doctor may prescribe different medicines.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage muscle cramp?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with muscle cramp:

  • Stretch and massage the muscle.
  • Take a warm shower or bath to relax the muscle. A heating pad placed on the muscle can also help.
  • Try using an ice or cold pack. Always keep a cloth between your skin and the ice pack.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • If your doctor prescribes medicines for muscle cramps, take them exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, will often help leg cramps.

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.

Review Date: January 4, 2017 | Last Modified: January 4, 2017

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