Reasons Your Legs Cramp Up at Night and How to Deal with It
Leg cramping can cause great distress and pain to the person experiencing it. These debilitating cramps sometimes decide to wake you up right when you’re having your most pleasant dream and ruin your sleep. Nocturnal leg cramps are muscle contractions in the calf muscles that happen spontaneously and suddenly during bedtime or any resting period.
Such contractions may occur in other muscles or in the soles of the feet as well. They usually go away within a few seconds, but sometimes they can last for several minutes. Although the sensation and intense pain might clear away faster, the soreness may linger for a longer period of time.
Nighttime leg cramps can affect people of all ages, both men and women, nevertheless, they are most frequent in middle-aged people or older. In addition, this type of cramps is also common in teenagers and individuals who exercise at night.
We still don’t know what the exact cause of nighttime leg cramping is, however, research has found several factors that may lead to this excruciating issue.
Common Reasons for Nighttime Leg Cramps
Lack of Certain Nutrients
Night and exercise-related cramps can occur due to an imbalance or deficiency of essential electrolytes, such as potassium, sodium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium. Your body needs these electrolytes for proper fluid balance, heart function and nervous system function. They support the proper functioning of your muscles and are responsible for both muscle contractions and nerve impulses.
Sodium is responsible for the maintenance of muscle contraction, body-fluid balance and nerve impulse generation.
Potassium, on the other hand, combines its power together with sodium and chloride to produce electrical impulses in the muscles and nerves.
Calcium is essential for the generation of nerve impulses and muscle contractions, while magnesium helps to balance adenosine triphosphate (ATP), or the energy source for muscle contractions.
Your risk of suffering muscle cramps or other similar issues increases if your body is lacking any of these important minerals. It is also important to mention that the lack of certain B vitamins, such as vitamin B12, can also affect your muscle function.
Sometimes, leg muscle cramps can be a symptom of a certain health condition or disease, and diabetes is one of them. Leg cramping is a common symptom of a type of nerve damage, known as diabetic neuropathy. Diabetics can feel sharp pain in the leg muscle, tingling sensation and numbness.
High blood sugar inevitably leads to dehydration of the body and frequent urination, which in turn causes leg cramps. Provided that you suffer from leg muscle cramps due to diabetes, you should contact your doctor immediately.
Use of Certain Medicines
Another common cause of night leg cramps is the use of certain medicines. These include cholesterol-lowering agents (statins) and diuretics, which help increase the loss of unneeded water and salt from the body through urination. However, these medicines also affect levels of electrolytes and may cause electrolyte deficiencies. As we mentioned earlier, any deficiency or imbalance of electrolytes leads to leg muscle cramping.
Other medicines that may cause cramps include steroids, birth control pills and antipsychotics. Consult your doctor in case you’ve noticed that your leg cramps started occurring when you started taking certain new medicine.
Since water makes 75% of muscle tissue, it goes without saying that keeping your body well hydrated will keep your muscles functioning properly. Hydration is necessary not only for proper muscle function, but also for optimal health of the entire body and mind.
Staying hydrated throughout the day will help prevent leg cramps during the night. Moreover, lack of water intake also affects the circulation of essential nutrients within the body. Thus, dehydration can deprive your muscles of much needed nutrients and lead to various electrolyte imbalances (magnesium, sodium, calcium, and potassium).
Another condition that may cause leg cramps and muscle weakness is hypothyroidism. This condition is characterized by decreased production of thyroid hormones, which in turn causes a decreased metabolic rate, extreme tiredness, weight gain, and depression, among other symptoms.
Since the thyroid hormones directly impact calcium absorption in the digestive system, hypothyroidism may inhibit calcium metabolism. As mentioned above, calcium is one of the essential minerals needed for proper muscle function and thereby its deficiency can cause muscle cramps, pain, numbness, and weakness.
Decreased metabolism, which is another symptom of hypothyroidism, has a huge impact on energy levels and makes you feel sluggish and exhausted. In addition, lack of thyroid hormones may also increase inflammation, which in turn can trigger muscle pain and cramping.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may cause serious damage to your peripheral nerves and lead to alcohol neuropathy. Leg pain and muscle cramping are common symptoms of this condition.
Furthermore, alcoholic beverages act as diuretics, so the more you drink the higher the level of dehydration. Alcohol can also affect your magnesium levels and lead to a lack of this mineral.
It’s also important to note that too much alcohol increases the level of lactic acid in the body, which in turn leads to cramps and pain.
Overexertion or Prolonged Standing
Being in a standing or upright position for long periods of time may pose numerous health risks, including nighttime leg cramps and varicose veins, according to a 2012 study. That is why it is advised that people whose jobs require prolonged standing try alternating standing with simple movements or small sitting periods, so as to reduce the amount of time in one position. Also, standing while wearing high heels or poorly fitting, tight shoes can lead to overexertion and muscle fatigue.
Additionally, not sitting properly or having your legs placed in an uncomfortable and awkward position during sleep may also be some of the causes for your nighttime leg cramps.
Leg cramps that occur at night are very common in women during pregnancy. They typically begin sometime in the second trimester and continue to recur through the third trimester.
Their intensity can range from mild to extremely painful. These leg cramps usually happen due to fatigue, decreased circulation in the legs because of the pressure of the baby on blood vessels, or elevated pressure of the uterus on certain nerves.
Useful Pieces of Advice on how to Deal with Nighttime Leg Cramps and Avoid Their Recurrence
- Avoid dehydration by drinking lots of water and other beneficial fluids.
- Sport drinks high in electrolytes may also be a great solution.
- Cut your consumption of alcoholic drinks, coffee, and soda drinks, which raise your risk of leg cramps.
- Relieve muscle cramps by massaging the place for 10-15 minutes.
- Make it a habit to do some stretching exercises for your legs before bedtime. A 2012 study found that stretching before bedtime may decrease the frequency and severity of nighttime leg cramps in adults.
- If you have a stationary bike, ride it for at least 10 minutes before bedtime.
- Ensure that your bed sheets and blankets are loose enough around your legs and feet.
- Increase your magnesium intake by consuming magnesium-rich foods, such as seeds and nuts. Nevertheless, pregnant women shouldn’t take any magnesium supplements and should always consult with their doctor prior taking any.
- A useful method to accelerate the recovery from a leg cramp is to start walking or jiggle your leg. These movements signalize the brain that your muscle needs to contract and relax.
- Make sure you consume a sufficient amount of potassium. Add potassium-rich foods to your diet, such as bananas, oranges, cabbage, apricots, fates, broccoli, grapes, grapefruit, pork, fish, and lamb.
- Last but not least, hot compresses help to relax and loosen up a cramped muscle, effectively soothing the cramp.