Leg cramps often strike suddenly and unexpectedly. You could be walking along the street or going down some stairs when one of your leg muscles spasms, creating a cramp. While they sometimes only last a few seconds, some leg cramps squeeze the muscle for minutes, resulting in agonizing pain.
Studies show that up to 60% of people aged over 50 experience nocturnal leg cramps. Occurring at night and often waking people from their sleep, nocturnal leg cramps generally affect the calf or thigh muscle.
As a common condition affecting both men and women, it can be helpful to know how to get rid of leg cramps. This article will look at the causes of leg cramps and show you eight ways to ease the pain.
What Causes Leg Cramps?
Although the causes of leg cramps are sometimes unknown, they are often the result of an overworked muscle or dehydration. Other causes for leg cramps include:
- Sitting for long periods
- Low potassium or magnesium levels
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease
- Nerve compression
- Excess sweating
Runners and athletes may experience leg cramps during a workout if they fail to warm up or push themselves too hard. Known as exercise-induced cramping, these cramps can damage the muscle and halt progress for weeks.
How to Get Rid of Leg Cramps
Treating a leg cramp quickly will often reduce the severity of the cramp. The below tips can help treat the pain and prevent future cramps from occurring.
Stretching can help stop a cramp quickly. Depending on which muscle is affected, the below stretches can help ease the cramp:
Stand one or two feet from the wall and step you cramping leg back behind you. Keeping your heel and foot on the ground, slowly lean towards the wall with your upper body to stretch your cramping leg.
If you have a towel handy, sit on the ground and wrap the towel around your foot. Pull back with both hands to stretch the calf.
A towel stretch can also help stop your hamstring cramping. To stretch it further, lie on your back and pull your leg towards your chest while keeping the leg straight.
To stretch your quads, pull one ankle towards your lower back while holding onto something for support. Slowly pull your leg up while keeping force on the ankle to stretch.
Hold any of the above stretches for up to 30 seconds, but be careful not to overstretch as this can cause further injury.
Massage can help restore blood flow to a cramped muscle while also providing pain relief. Because it relaxes the muscles, massage can also be used as a preventative measure against future cramps. To stop a leg cramp and ease the pain, gently massage the affected muscle.
Athletes and those that suffer frequent leg cramps can find help from professional sports therapy. Focusing on muscle repair and rehabilitation, regular sports massage can keep leg cramps from occurring.
3. Use a Hot or Cold Compress
Heat helps improve circulation while cold constricts blood flow. To relax the muscle and soothe pain, apply heat to the muscle. A warm bath or heat pack can loosen the muscles and stop a cramp.
Some people find relief by applying a cold compress to a cramped leg. Because it reduces swelling, this is an easy way to relieve pain. Remember to never apply ice directly to the skin. A bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a damp towel makes a quick cold pack.
4. Get Hydrated
Dehydration is one of the main causes of leg cramps during physical activity. As the muscles work harder, they heat up and can start to cramp without adequate hydration.
To avoid dehydration, you need to drink 2-3 liters of water each day. Sports drinks containing electrolytes are a great way to return hydration and minerals that are lost through sweat.
5. Take Magnesium
Low magnesium levels in the blood can lead to cramps. If you suffer from frequent leg cramps, taking a daily magnesium supplement might help reduce their frequency. Often recommended for pregnant women, magnesium helps the body function correctly.
While magnesium has limited negative side effects, consult with your doctor first to ensure it’s right for you.
6. Change Your Diet
A natural way to prevent leg cramps is to fill your diet with foods rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium. As leg cramps can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, it’s important to consider your diet as the cause for the condition.
Fruits and vegetables high in these minerals include bananas, apricots, broccoli, and cabbage. Dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk are a great source of calcium.
While it’s not recommended to eat excess salt, low sodium levels caused by physical activity can also lead to leg cramps. Saltwater fish and pickled foods are a safe way to add sodium back into your system.
7. Try Supplements
Supplements are another way to prevent leg cramps and correct mineral deficiencies. Packing many times the dose found in food, supplements can correct the levels of minerals in your body. While it’s rare to need a sodium supplement, calcium and potassium deficiencies are common.
If you don’t like taking tablets, many supplements are available in powdered form to make a drink. Alternatively, some people prefer to consume apple cider vinegar due to its high levels of magnesium, potassium, and sodium.
8. Change Your Shoes
An often overlooked cause of leg cramps is poorly fitting footwear. Shoes that provide minimal support place additional strain on the leg muscles, which over time can result in a cramp. Where possible, avoid high-heeled and pointed-toe shoes as they force the calf muscle to engage for long periods of time.
If you suffer from nocturnal leg cramps, consult a podiatrist for the right type of footwear for you. People with flat feet or other foot problems may find a shoe insert could resolve their pain.
Almost everyone will experience a leg cramp at some stage of life. While rarely the case, frequent leg cramps could be a sign of another underlying health issue. If you suffer from frequent cramps, consult your doctor or podiatrist about an examination and treatment plan.
Knowing how to get rid of leg cramps is only the first step. Follow the above tips to lead a cramp-free and pain-free life.