Everyone experiences muscle cramps from time to time due to intense pain and an inability to use the affected leg muscles. It can occur at the front of the thigh (quadriceps), back of the thigh (hamstrings) and the lower legs or calves (gastrocnemius). A cramp can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer, and can possibly recur several times before it goes away. But have you ever experienced waking up in the middle of the night with a sudden painful cramp in your leg? Is it so painful that it can even make you cry? This condition is referred to as night leg cramps. Night leg cramps are contractions of the leg muscles, usually in the back of the lower leg or calf. They usually occur just as you’re about to fall asleep, or when you are about to wake up.
When this happens, the leg muscles remain painfully tight and contracted. Experts say that the exact cause of night leg cramps is unknown but they believe that it may be due to the body’s abnormal processing of electrolytes. Electrolytes such as salt and minerals are essential elements and chemical substances that your body needs for basic muscle functions. Other factors include inadequate stretching and muscle fatigue.
Calcium deficiency is also one of the common causes of leg cramps at night especially among women. If you are post-menopausal, trying to lose weight, or don’t consume enough calcium, you are susceptible to night leg cramps. To alleviate leg cramps, experts advise the increase calcium consumption. This can also prevent other problems associated with calcium deficiency like osteoporosis. When taken regularly, calcium supplements may help relieve the pain caused by leg cramps.
Other causes of night leg cramps are prolonged sitting, pregnancy, diabetes, decreased potassium levels, neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, and alcohol use. Certain medications, such as albuterol, niacin, diuretics, and some calcium channel blockers and antipsychotic medications can also cause night leg cramps. Partially obstructed flow of blood to the legs and abnormal mineral or hormone levels can also be the causes for painful muscle cramps at night.
If a person suffers from night leg cramps, there are some ways to make this annoying condition go away:
Apply a cold pack on the affected muscle to ease the pain.
Massage the affected muscle, to loosen the tension in the leg.
Try walking on the affected leg to stretch the muscles and get blood to circulate.
Straighten the leg and flex the foot towards your knee until the muscles stretch.
Take a hot bath to relax the muscles.
To help prevent night leg cramps, it will help if a person drinks plenty of fluids during the day; stretches the calf muscles through wall push ups; applies a heating pad for ten minutes before going to sleep; and consumes adequate potassium as part of the daily diet.
Quinine is the only drug that has been shown to be effective in treating night leg cramps. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stopped the over-the-counter sale of this drug because of drug safety concerns. The FDA is looking into the reported side effects of the drug that include the possibility of causing birth defects and miscarriages. According to reports, Quinine also causes headache, disturbed vision, chest pain, asthma, ringing in the ears, and side effects.
Although these have not been clinically proven to reduce the regularity of attacks, doctors may prescribe muscle relaxants, Benadryl, or vitamin E to help ease leg cramps. However, current research shows that Vitamin B-12 and Gabapentin are the most effective treatments.
If a person is frequently suffering from leg cramps at night, it is still best to consult a doctor to get rid of this nocturnal problem that’s creeping and twitching our legs and disturbs people from a good night’s sleep.