Sleep Interrupted: Leg Cramps at Night and What You Can Do

You’ve had a rough day. Imagine lying down at the end of the day. Relaxation is almost upon you when your leg seizes into a terrible cramp.

Nocturnal cramps in the leg can hit you at any time. And these muscle spasms can be so intense that it leaves some people paralyzed until it subsides. Your first instinct may be to stretch out the muscle, but you feel unable to move.

Keep reading to find out what causes nocturnal leg cramps. And more importantly, if there is a way to prevent it from happening again.

What Causes Leg Cramps at Night?

Nocturnal leg cramps can happen to anyone at any time. Up to 60% of adults may experience leg cramps at night. And it can lead to severe insomnia because of interrupted sleep or anxiety about sleeping at night.

Nocturnal leg cramps normally occur in the calf muscle. Both muscles contract from the back of the leg from the knee to the ankle. Occasionally, cramps happen in other parts of the leg, too. The hamstrings, quads, and even feet may be affected.

Causes

Experts aren’t sure what causes leg cramps, but they think that it may be associated with muscle fatigue and nerve dysfunction.

According to the Mayo Clinic, nocturnal leg cramps may also be associated with different conditions. Diabetic nerve damage and kidney failure are both known to cause leg cramps. Medical conditions linked to nocturnal leg cramps are:

  • Anemia
  • Acute kidney failure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Diabetes, type 1 and type 2
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hypothyroidism

Furthermore, some medications and procedures may cause nocturnal leg cramps:

  • Dialysis
  • Blood pressure drugs
  • Diuretics
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs

Other conditions linked to leg cramps also include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Pregnancy
  • Osteoarthritis

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is sometimes confused with nocturnal leg cramps. But they are not the same. Pain is not one of the main symptoms for restless leg syndrome.

The risk of getting nighttime leg cramps increases as a person gets older. And women are more likely to have an episode of leg cramps than men.

Some lifestyle choices may contribute to nighttime leg cramps:

  • Crossing the legs with toes pointed for long periods
  • Overexerting muscles
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Standing for too long

Nocturnal leg cramps may be associated with foot positioning. While relaxing or sleeping, most people position their feet and legs away from their body. When the toes point away in plantar flexion, it may shorten your calf muscles and make you more susceptible to leg cramps.

Prevention Tips

Nighttime leg cramps are unpredictable. But there are a few things you can try to lower the likelihood of having them. Try these 6 tips to avoid nighttime cramps:

1 – Stay hydrated

Fluids help muscles in the body function. So, try to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.

2 – Loosen up leg muscles

Loosening up leg muscles before bed may help lower the risk of getting nighttime leg cramps. Try cycling on a stationary bike for a couple of minutes before bed.

3 – Stretch leg muscles before bed

Stretching before bed may help reduce the severity and frequency of nighttime leg cramps.

4 – Wear supportive footwear

Wearing poor footwear can make pre-existing issues in the feet and legs worse. People with flat feet should pay extra attention to their footwear.

5 – Sleep on your back

Some sleep positions can increase the risk of getting nighttime leg cramps. Sleeping in positions where your feet point downward may increase the risk. Instead, try sleeping on your back with pillow support under the knees.

6 – Change your bedding type

Sleeping in tucked-in or heavy bedding could impact your legs. This type of bedding could push the feet downward. Instead, try to change bedding type to untucked loose sheets and a light comforter.

Leg Cramp Treatment and Care

Nighttime leg cramps can last between a few seconds to 10 minutes. While it may be excruciating, generally someone doesn’t need medical attention afterward. However, there are a few things you can do to relieve the cramp:

Use Heat

Try a hot water bottle, hot towel, or heating pad to tight muscles. It may help soothe it. Showers or warm baths may also soothe tight muscles.

Pickle Juice

Pickle juice can help with muscle cramps. There is some evidence that point to drinking a small amount for relief.

Stretching

Stretching out a cramped muscle may be one of the most common treatments. For leg cramps, try to straighten out your leg. Flex your foot so that the top of your toes are pointing towards you.

Heel Walking

Walking on your heels activates the muscle in front of your leg, opposite your calf. And doing this may help your leg relax. However, if leg cramps happen in your thighs, this technique may not help.

Over-the-Counter Painkillers

Try brands like Advil, Motrin, and Aleve to relieve lingering tenderness after a cramp. The first two are ibuprofen while the last one is naproxen. Tylenol or acetaminophen may also work. If these common brand painkillers aren’t available, you may have to look for other types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkillers.

Chronic sleep disruptions due to nighttime leg cramps may require a doctor visit. Make an appointment with your healthcare professional. You may receive a prescription for muscle relaxants to help with cramp prevention. Or your doctor can run tests to find out if your leg cramps are because of an underlying condition.

Final Thought

Nighttime cramps can happen at any time. And there is no exact cause for them. However, there are certain conditions and triggers that may increase the risk of cramps at night.

Getting leg cramps can be painful and annoying. They can disrupt sleep if they’re chronic, too. Unfortunately, unless there is an underlying medical condition that’s causing the cramps, there is not much a doctor can do about it.

Lastly, prevention tips can help minimize the risk of nocturnal leg cramps. Try stretching or loosening up leg muscles before bed. And if you do get cramps, take care of yourself by applying heat or taking some over-the-counter medication for the pain.

References:

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14170-leg-cramps-at-night
https://www.healthline.com/health/leg-cramps-at-night
https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/night-leg-cramps/basics/definition/sym-20050813
https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/muscle-bone-and-joints/conditions/leg-cramps
https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0815/p350.html
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1836955312700681
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19997012
https://www.healthline.com/health/plantar-flexion

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