When we move, we alternately contract and relax our muscles voluntarily. When these muscles or even fibers of a particular muscle contract involuntarily, it is called a spasm. When a spasm is sustained over a period of time and is intense in its contraction, it is referred to as a cramp.
One of the most common types of cramps experienced is the leg cramp. These cramps are a result of the painful and spontaneous contraction of the muscles, below the knee. Generally, these cramps occur in the calf or the foot and most often at night. Older people tend to suffer more from leg cramps, though they are seen in younger people as well. Although leg cramps or Charlies Horse as they are also known, are very common, research is still not extensive enough to reach any conclusions about any singular cause. However, studies do show that certain risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing these cramps.
Symptoms of Night Cramps
Symptoms of leg cramps can include:
- Sustained muscle spasms that occur mostly at night
- Visible hardening of the cramped muscle
- The cramped muscle is hard to touch
- The cramp is intense and can last from a few seconds to several minutes
- The cramp can recur several times in the same place until it finally disappears
- The cramp may involve part of a muscle, the entire muscle or several muscles at a time
- Leg cramps are followed by tenderness in the area
- There may be evidence of muscle fiber necrosis and elevations of serum creatinine kinase in the affected area.
- Regular leg cramps can cause muscle fatigue and pain
- Nocturnal leg cramps are especially troublesome during pregnancy
- Patients suffering from an imbalance of electrolytes or undergoing hemodialysis are also prone to leg cramps
Causes of Night Cramps
While there is no consensus as yet about any singular cause of leg cramps at night, studies show that there are certain factors that might increase the likelihood of suffering from these painful muscular contractions. It is believed that some trigger or defect in the nervous system causes muscles to contract. Some experts suggest that the mechanism that prevents muscles from responding to dream activity in the brain may also be involved. Another viewpoint insists that leg cramps occur during the point of transition between sleeping and waking. Though there are several different ideas about why night cramps occur, most scientists agree that these cramps are not in any way related to any malfunction or disorder in the brain.
Other factors that may induce leg cramps include:
- Dehydration and insufficient intake of fluids
- Excessive or sudden exercise
- Imbalance of electrolytes
- Long periods where the legs and feet are kept in an unnatural position
- Prolonged sitting
- Abnormality in bone formations such as flat feet
- Extended periods of standing or standing on very hard surfaces
- Weight gain
- Imbalance or low levels of magnesium in the body
- Low levels of calcium, sodium, or potassium
- Excessive perspiration
- Diuretics and kidney dialysis
- Problems with the thyroid
- Parkinsons disease
- Endocrine disorders
- Certain medications such as blood pressure drugs and oral contraceptives
- Problems with blood circulation
- Some bacterial or viral infections
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Nerve root disease
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
- Spinal stenosis
- Addison's disease
Remedies for Night Cramps
Treatment for night leg cramps involves some simple steps to lessen the discomfort and reduce the pain:
- If you wake up with a leg cramp, the first thing you can do is lightly massage the affected muscles. You can even use baby oil and massage the area by rolling the cramped muscle gently from side to side or back by using a back and forth motion over the entire muscle.
- Apply a hot compress to the area if the contraction does not subside. Heat makes the muscle more malleable and helps soothe away the pain. A warm bath can do the trick as well.
- Applying an ice pack to the area can also help. Ice can relieve pain and lessen any inflammation but make sure you do not apply ice to the area for more than ten minutes at a time.
- Do so simple stretches to relax the muscles. You can lie on your back and lift your legs, pointing your toes towards the ceiling. Flex your toes backwards slowly and release. Alternate between flexing and pointing till the cramp stops. Another easy stretch is to raise your feet in the air and reach out and grab your toes. Pulling on your toes in this position will effectively stretch your calf muscles.
- Very often, night cramps are caused by dehydration. In such cases, the best night cramps remedy would be to stay hydrated throughout the day. Drink at least 8 to 10 glasses of water (more if you exercise strenuously and sweat a lot).
- An age-old remedy was to drink tonic water that contained quinine before sleeping. Though this has proved effective in treating night cramps, check with your doctor before doing this as quinine has several adverse side effects if not taken carefully. Avoid quinine completely if you are pregnant.
- Another remedy for leg cramps at night is to stretch the calves and feet regularly throughout the day. Some light exercise before sleeping such as a few minutes on a stationery bike can also help prevent cramps.
- Increase your intake of vitamin C to prevent muscles from cramping. Opt for timed-release vitamin C capsule and have these twice a day. Though 1,000 mg capsules are recommended, check with your doctor before beginning any new regime as even vitamin supplements can cause side effects or react adversely with other medication.
- If low levels of sodium or potassium are causing night cramps, you can help balance out the levels by drinking commercially available sports drinks. These are created to replenish lost electrolytes in the body.
Diet for Night Cramps
Apart from taking mineral and vitamin supplements to balance out low levels of potassium, sodium, and calcium, you can also make changes in your dietary habits to treat leg cramps at night:
- Increase your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fruits such as bananas, grapes, apricots, and dates are wonderful sources of potassium and magnesium.
- Avoid refined flours that have no nutritional value and low levels of magnesium. Opt instead for whole meal or whole grain flours and cereals to reap the most of their natural benefits.
- Other good sources of minerals include pulses, cabbage, broccoli, oranges, tomatoes, pork, lamb, tuna, potatoes, and corn.
- Spinach, okra, Swiss chard, brown rice and almonds are high in magnesium and can prevent leg cramps.
- Eating cheese, tofu, whole milk products and beans can help maintain calcium levels.
- Try a nighttime snack of almonds; raisins, prunes, plums or tomatoes as they are high in magnesium can prevent leg cramps at night.
- Limit your use of salt and sodium during the day as this can increase loss of potassium and fluids.
Suggestions for Night Cramps
You can prevent night cramps by:
- Propping your feet up with a pillow while sleeping on your back
- If you sleep on your stomach, try handing your feet off over the edge of the bed
- Keep your blankets loose around the feet. Often tight blankets can result in toes and feet in an unnatural position during the night and cause cramps
- Wear proper footwear during the day. If you have to stand for extended periods of time make sure your footwear is comfortable and with the proper support. Regularly wearing high heels can also lead to night cramps
- Stretch your muscles before sleeping. Try simple stretches for your calves before you go to bed to prevent cramps from occurring
- If you are active, drink adequate amounts of water and fluids during the day to prevent dehydration. However, be careful not to over do it as too much fluid can dilute the concentration of sodium in the blood and cause other health problems.
- Joannes M. Hallegraeff, Cees P. van der Schans, Renee de Ruiter, Mathieu H.G. de Greef, Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial, Journal of Physiotherapy, Volume 58, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 17-22, ISSN 1836-9553, 10.1016/S1836-9553(12)70068-1.
- Schwartz, Use of quinine for relief of night cramps in the extremities: Moss, H. K., and Herrmann, L. G.: J. A. M. A. 115: 1358, 1940, American Heart Journal, Volume 21, Issue 4, April 1941, Page 536, ISSN 0002-8703, 10.1016/S0002-8703(41)90663-4.
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