Have you ever gone to bed and were suddenly awoken with a severe leg cramp? Nighttime leg cramps, AKA nocturnal leg cramps, can be a nightmare if you get them.
Leg cramps are characterized by abrupt, uncomfortable (and even painful) muscle spasms that can affect the calf muscles and thighs but can also involve your feet. They can occur when you are awake, but most often they occur at night.
Causes for nocturnal leg cramps
Although night leg cramps are often referred to as “charley horses,” there is no Charley and certainly no horse causing them. You may wonder then what could be causing these unwelcome wake-up calls.
“Nobody really knows the exact cause for leg muscle cramps at night, but there are some known factors that can increase your risk,” said Joyce Lee-Iannotti, MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist with Banner Brain & Spine.
These factors include:
- Your age: It’s estimated that nearly 60% of those ages 50 and older report nocturnal leg cramps.
- Pregnancy: This may occur due to weight gain and changes in circulation.
- Certain medical conditions: Those with kidney and thyroid problems or peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage in the legs) may experience leg cramping.
- Side effects of some medications: Medications such as diuretics, blood pressure medications or statins may contribute to leg cramps.
“Other risk factors may be due to overexerting your leg muscles, sitting for prolonged periods of time without moving, dehydration or standing and walking on hard surfaces all day,” Dr. Lee-Iannotti added.
Could it be restless leg syndrome?
Many people confuse nocturnal leg cramps with another health condition known as restless leg syndrome, RLS. Like RLS, leg cramps most often occur at rest. The difference, however, is that leg cramps produce muscle contractions, cramping and pain. With RLS, you’ll experience a strange and unpleasant urge to move your legs in order to stop a feeling of discomfort, but there isn’t usually pain associated with it.
7 ways to relieve and prevent leg cramps at night
The good news is that although they can be painful, nocturnal leg cramps aren’t typically serious. While it can be a bit of trial and error, here are seven home remedies you can try to help relieve discomfort and potentially stop painful wake-up calls.
- Stretch the muscles in your calves and your hamstrings during the day and and before you go to bed.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and watch your alcohol and caffeine consumption.
- Try mild exercises before bed, such as walking or riding the stationary bike for a few minutes.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating right, exercising regularly and getting enough proper sleep.
- Take a warm bath or shower to soothe tight muscles.
- Wear supportive shoes with proper arch and ankle support.
- Keep sheets and blankets loose around your feet so you aren’t as restricted to move around at night.
“If none of these remedies work, you’re continuing to have severe persistent cramping and it’s impacting your sleep and daily function, call your doctor,” Dr. Lee-Iannotti said. “Nocturnal leg cramps shouldn’t impair your general well-being.”
Nocturnal leg cramps, or charley horses, are a real nightmare, but don’t let them get you down. Find relief with a Banner Health specialist, by visiting bannerhealth.com.