Muscle spasm such as leg cramps that occur during the night is known as nocturnal (at night) leg cramps. Nocturnal leg cramps usually cause awakenings from sleep, but they may also occur while you are awake at night during periods of inactivity. Besides the calf muscles, it can occur in the thighs or feet. Spasm is quite painful and causes the affected muscles to feel tight or knotted. It may last from several seconds up to several minutes. Although more common in adults over age 50, it can also occur in younger adults and children, regardless of gender.
What causes nocturnal leg cramps?
Multiple studies suggest that muscle fatigue is the primary cause of leg cramps. For example, a study involving endurance athletes show that leg cramps occur when the athletes are involved in a higher-than-normal intensity of exercise. As fatigue depletes oxygen, this allows waste products to build up throughout the day and produce cramping and spasms at night. Not just exercise, over-exertion as sitting for a long period of time, standing or working on concrete floors or sitting improperly can also be a contributing factor. People who are born with a structural abnormality such as flat feet are also more likely to experience muscle cramp.
Sometimes, nocturnal muscle spasm can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition. This includes neurologic conditions such as parkinsonism or endocrine disorders such as diabetes and hypothyroidism. An imbalance of the electrolytes of the body either by dehydration or hemodialysis can also be a cause. Certain medications are also known to be associated with nocturnal leg cramps. This includes diuretics, statins and beta agonists.
Women who are pregnant are more susceptible to leg and foot cramps at night, particularly in the second and third trimesters. Possible reasons may be due to increasing weight, dehydration, nutritional deficiencies, particularly in magnesium as well as underlying medical condition and medications.
Treatment of nocturnal leg cramps
Passive stretching and deep tissue massage are helpful measures that may help when you have a night time leg cramps. Stretch your muscles first by straightening your leg with the heel flexed and the toes flexed back toward your shins. Then, massage the area to relax the muscle. You may put a warm compress or pain relieving cream on the area to soothe it. Eventually, you should address the possible cause of your leg cramps such as by drinking plenty of water, avoid overstraining during the day or consult your doctor about your medications.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: November 15, 2018 | Last Modified: November 15, 2018
Richard E. Allen and Karl A. Kirby, ‘Nocturnal Leg Cramps’, American Family Physician 86, no. 4 (15 August 2012): 350–55.
Renee S. Monderer, Winfred P. Wu, and Michael J. Thorpy, ‘Nocturnal Leg Cramps’, Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports 10, no. 1 (1 January 2010): 53–59, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11910-009-0079-5.