Nocturnal leg cramps are one of the most painful problems you can experience. They occur in the middle of the night and the sharp pain can ruin your sleep, leaving you without energy and with sore leg muscles in the morning.
Leg cramps are involuntary contractions of the calf muscles that usually occur overnight. They can also strike at the soles or other muscles. It usually lasts for a couple of seconds to a few minutes.
Once the cramp goes away, the muscle soreness may remain for the next few hours or until the morning. Nocturnal leg cramps affect both men and women and people over the age of 50 are most susceptible to this issue.
Even though the root cause of nocturnal leg cramps is still unclear, there are various factors that can contribute to this painful problem. Check them out!
Dehydration is one of the biggest causes of nocturnal leg cramps. Proper hydration means proper body and mind function, including the contraction of muscles. If you’re not keeping properly hydrated during the day, you will experience cramps overnight. Without sufficient amounts of water, your muscles will be robbed of essential nutrients they need to work normally.
2. Nutritional deficiency
Any kind of imbalance of mineral electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium can lead to nocturnal and exercise-related cramps. These minerals maintain the proper work of your muscles and are responsible for both nerve impulses and muscle contractions.
Sodium is essential for maintaining a normal body-fluid balance, muscle contraction and nerve impulse generation.
Potassium works along with sodium and chloride to generate electrical impulses in the muscles and nerves. Calcium plays an important role in the generation of nerve impulses and muscle contractions.
Magnesium helps in stabilizing ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy source for muscle contractions. Moreover, it serves as an electrolyte in body fluids.
If you are deficient in any of these minerals, you are more likely to experience cramps and other muscle-related issues. In addition, certain B vitamin can impact muscle function, especially vitamin B12.
3. Standing for too long
Standing for prolonged periods or wearing improper footwear can overburden your muscles and increase the risk of nocturnal leg cramps. According to one study, the same factor raises the risk of varicose veins, so make sure to cut the time spent on your feet. Sitting with crossed legs or sitting for too long can also cause the condition.
Pregnant women are more likely to experience leg cramps at night. This starts in the second trimester and lasts through the third trimester.
These cramps can be different in their intensity, from mild to extremely painful. They can occur as a result of fatigue, an increasing pressure of the uterus on certain nerves, or reduced circulation in the legs from the pressure of the baby on blood vessels.
Low levels of thyroid hormones in the body are definitely a cause for concern and may lead to a number of health problems including nocturnal leg cramps. Hypothyroidism reduces the levels of calcium in the body, resulting in muscle pain, weakness and numbness as well. Low thyroid hormone levels can also cause fatigue and low metabolism, which can result in inflammation and muscle cramps.
6. Certain medications
Certain medications like cholesterol-lowering agents (statins) and diuretics can cause loss of water and electrolytes from the body, which increases your risk of experiencing cramps. Antipsychotics, birth control pills, and steroids can also lead to cramps. If you experience cramps suddenly after you start taking a new medication, make sure to consult your doctor immediately.
7. Uncontrolled diabetes
Diabetes patients often experience nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy) in the legs which results in sharp pain and numbness. The high blood sugar levels can dehydrate your body and lead to muscle cramps. So, if you experience this symptom and you’re a diabetic, you should consult with your doctor immediately.
8. Alcohol abuse
The excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your peripheral nerves and cause alcohol neuropathy which is usually characterized by leg pain and muscle cramps. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, so the excessive drinking can lead to dehydration. Moreover, it can cause a magnesium deficiency. Do not forget to mention that excess alcohol can increase the content of lactic acid in the body. Excessive lactic acid can cause pain and cramps.
Treatment and prevention for nocturnal leg cramps
The treatment itself heavily depends on the underlying cause. For instance, if dehydration is the cause of your nocturnal keg cramps, you need to make sure that you stay hydrated during the day. Other preventive measures and treatments include the following:
- Stretch your legs prior to bed.
- Partake in water exercises to build leg muscles.
- Wear ergonomic shoes and avoid high heels.
- Use horse chestnut, which has been shown to increase blood flow to the legs.
- Take a relaxing, warm bath prior sleeping to ease any muscle tightness.
- Apply a heating pad to the affected area.
- Try acupuncture treatment to loosen tight leg muscles.
- Ensure you are not deficient in magnesium or potassium – deficiencies in both minerals are linked to muscle cramping.
How to react when cramps occur?
Once the leg cramp strikes, the person is nearly left paralyzed. Therefore, it is very important to know how to react so that you get an instant relief and feel less sore afterwards. Consider the following tips:
- Gently massage the area in a circular motion.
- Ensure blankets and sheets are not tight enough to make the leg muscle contract.
- Take a tablespoon of yellow mustard to relieve discomfort.
- While sitting on the floor extend both legs out in front of you. Now flex your feet at the ankles and point your toes toward your knees – you may want to tug on your feet to offer an even better stretch.
- Get up slowly and walk around a bit – shaking your legs can also improve blood flow.