Leg Cramps

20 April 2022

A leg cramp or Charley Horse is a sudden onset when the leg muscle contracts or shortens and can last for a few seconds or minutes. Generally they occur in the calf but can also be in the feet and thighs. Cramps in thighs seem to have the longest duration. If the cramp is very tight, that muscle can still be sore for days. This is different from restless legs syndrome, where there is an involuntary urge to move…and material for another article another day.

It is reported that about 60% of adults and 40% of children and adolescents complain of nocturnal leg cramps and resulting insomnia. Even experts don’t know why legs cramp at night. There are some theories like the nerves send wrong signals to the muscles, muscle fatigue, or something still to be theorized. Age does play a factor because the tendons that connect muscle to bone will shorten as a person gets older. Statistics also show that more women are prone to leg cramping than men.

Experts do recognize that the likelihood of having a night cramp is higher if:

  • Age 50 or older
  • Overworked muscles
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Insufficient hydration
  • Standing for too long on hard surfaces

There are some medical conditions that can contribute:

  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s
  • Hormone disorders
  • Certain chemical imbalances
  • Flat feet
  • Pregnancy

Also, some medications that treat:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • COPD

If your leg cramps are frequent or severe, speak with your medical team. With examinations and tests, they can rule out serious causes.

If you do experience a nocturnal leg cramp, there are some things you can try. First and foremost, if the room is dark, turn on a light so that you can move around the room safely if necessary.

  • Get out of bed and press your foot until it is flat on the floor. Place your weight on the foot. Walk around for a few minutes.
  • Massage the muscle
  • Ice the area
  • Soak in a warm bath

foot bath

There are prescription medications that can help prevent these cramps, however, they are not always successful. In addition, most contain side effects that can be harmful or interact improperly with other medications. Quinine is no longer recommended as a remedy.

Prevention measures include:

  • Simple stretching exercises focusing on calf and foot muscles several times during the day and before bed.
  • Good hydration through the day.
  • Exercise the feet and legs, even short walks will help
  • Wear good shoes that provide adequate support.
  • Sleep under loose covers.

There are a couple of exercises you can try.

  • While standing, straighten one leg and lift that foot until the toes are pointing toward the shin. If you are able to reach your toes, gently pull on them. This is much safer if you do it in a sitting position with the leg stretched out in front of you. This is something appropriate even for those who have mobility issues.
  • Stand about three feet away from a wall. Lean forward and touch the wall with your arms outstretched. Keep your feet flat on the floor. Hold for a count of five. Repeat for about five minutes three times a day.

While leg cramps are not life threatening, they are extremely uncomfortable and more than annoying.

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