Dear Mayo Clinic:
As I've gotten older I seem to get leg cramps at night more frequently. Is there anything I can do once it begins, or do I just have to wait it out? Are there ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place?
Anyone who has ever woken up with a leg cramp knows how painful it can be when one of their muscles suddenly contracts. Night leg cramps typically involve calf muscles. Yet, it's possible to get these cramps in the feet or thighs as well.
In most cases, night leg cramps are harmless and can be relieved or even prevented with some simple stretching or other self-care measures. However, if they occur regularly and cause severe discomfort, see your doctor. This is particularly true if leg cramps are interfering with your sleep or you're having muscle weakness, swelling, numbness or pain that lingers or continues to come back.
Although the risk of getting night leg cramps increases with age, it's often difficult to pinpoint the cause. In fact, these cramps often occur for no known reason.
Dehydration, prolonged sitting, or not getting enough potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can be associated with leg cramps. So can certain medications - including diuretics, beta blockers and other blood pressure drugs.
Sometimes, these cramps also may be related to an underlying metabolic condition, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or a parathyroid condition. Diabetes or other conditions that disrupt your metabolism can also cause muscle cramps.
Night leg cramps are sometimes confused with restless legs syndrome (RLS). With RLS, you feel throbbing, pulling or other unpleasant sensations in your legs and have an uncontrollable urge to move your lower limbs. These symptoms primarily occur at night or when at rest. However, muscle pain is less common with restless legs syndrome than it is with night leg cramps. Pain from swelling caused by excess fluid (edema) may feel like leg cramps.
The pain caused by leg cramps can vary in intensity and last from just a few seconds to 15 minutes or more. To get relief, gently rubbing a cramped muscle can help it relax. Stretching also can ease a spasm. For a calf cramp, try standing and putting your weight on the leg in question and then slightly bending your knee. If you're in too much pain to stand up, straighten your leg and flex the top of your foot toward your head.
Applying cold or heat also can offer some relief. To relax tense muscles, apply ice or a cold pack directly to the area where you feel cramping. Applying heat with a warm towel or heating pad, or by taking a hot bath or shower, also can make you feel better by reducing muscle pain or tenderness.
Although night leg cramps can take you by surprise, prevention is possible. These steps can help:
Staying hydrated — Drinking water and other liquids throughout the day can keep you from becoming dehydrated. It can also help your muscles contract and relax more easily. It's especially important to replenish your fluids when engaging in physical activity and to continue drinking water and other liquids after being active.
Stretching before bed — If you have night leg cramps, it's a good idea to stretch before turning in for the night.
Doing light exercise — Riding a stationary bike for a few minutes before bedtime may help prevent cramps while you're sleeping.
Choosing the right shoes — Wearing shoes that have proper support may help prevent leg cramps.
Untucking the covers — Loosen or untuck the bedsheets and other covers at the foot of your bed.
If self-care strategies aren't keeping cramps at bay, pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may be of help.
— Paul Takahashi, M.D., Primary Care Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.