It is the contraction of muscles, which enables the physical movement in human beings. Such muscle contractions can be voluntary or involuntary. A sudden and involuntary contraction of a muscle or a group of muscles can cause cramps. Such cramps may be accompanied by severe pain too.
The most common among muscle cramps are leg cramps, which are also known as 'Charley horse cramps'. Leg cramps are caused by the sudden and forceful contraction of leg muscles, especially those in the calf, the hamstring and the quadriceps. Sometimes, even the small muscles in the feet can cause cramps.
Leg cramps are common among elderly and pregnant women, but young people may also experience this condition, irrespective of age and gender.
Nighttime Leg Cramps
Generally, leg cramps occur when you rest, especially during the night. Such leg cramps are also called night leg cramps. In most cases, the contraction of calf muscles is the reason for cramps, but the thigh or feet muscles can also cause cramps.
Leg cramps in bed may last for a few seconds to a few minutes, but in some cases, it may last even longer. The intensity of the pain also varies and in most cases, it is severe enough to wake the person up. Even if the cramp subsides, the muscle may remain sore for some time.
Most people experience occasional leg cramps, but for some, especially, the aged, this problem can be more frequent. Such leg cramps are sometimes mistaken for restless legs syndrome, which is a totally different condition that is characterized by some uncomfortable itchy and crawly sensations in the legs. Such sensations are relieved with leg movements.
There is no precise medical cause for leg cramps. Though there are certain medical conditions attached to this type of cramps, it has been observed that many people develop this condition without any specific cause.
It has been contended that cramps could be caused when the muscles, which are in a shortened position, are stimulated to contract. This theory explains the relation between the sleeping position and the contraction of leg muscles.
Most people sleep with their legs slightly bent and the knees pointing downwards. In this position, the calf muscles are in a shortened form and any contraction of these muscles in that position, can lead to cramps. However, this is only a possible cause for leg cramps in those with no apparent underlying condition.
There are many other contributing factors for leg cramps in bed and they include certain medical and physical conditions too. Some of them are -
- Dehydration and/or diarrhea
- Overexertion of muscles
- Kidney failure
- Spinal stenosis
- Parkinson's disease
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Certain nerve disorders
Prolonged sitting or lying down in the same position may restrict the blood flow through the concerned muscles and cause leg cramps.
People with low levels of certain minerals, like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium is another contributory factor.
Use of certain medications can also cause leg cramps in some people. Drugs, like diuretics may worsen the situation for those who are already affected by frequent leg cramps.
Narrowing of arteries in the legs, leads to poor blood circulation to the legs and can cause cramps. Some people experience such cramps after renal dialysis. Also, cirrhosis of liver may cause leg cramps in some patients. Hormonal imbalance is also linked to leg cramps. Those with flat feet are prone to develop leg cramps at night while sleeping.
In most cases, the discomfort and pain associated with leg cramps resolve as the cramp subsides. This may happen within a few seconds or minutes or a few hours or even longer.
Though pain medications are not necessary, they may relieve the tenderness of the muscle, once the cramp subsides. Quinine tablets are effective, but they can cause side effects in some people, especially pregnant women. Try this medicine only after consulting a doctor. Some health experts opt for muscle relaxants to reduce the discomfort caused by cramps.
Leg cramps in bed can be relieved by stretching of the legs. You may also try massaging the affected area with some pain balm. Even hot/cold compresses may work wonders for relieving leg cramps. Warm showers before bed time may help to prevent leg cramps. Otherwise, you may simply pour some hot water down the legs, before sleep.
While occasional leg cramps are common, you must seek medical attention, if the condition is persistent or frequent. In that case, consult your doctor and get the condition diagnosed at the earliest. If there is any underlying cause, treating it will resolve the cramp problem.
If the leg cramps are associated with secondary symptoms, then also immediate medical attention must be sought. Check whether any of your current medications is causing these muscle cramps. However, don't discontinue use of those drugs, without consulting your doctor.
In that case, you better approach your doctor and seek his opinion. He may change or stop the medication, as he deems fit for you. The following are some of the preventive measures that can be adopted for relief from night leg cramps.
In case of leg cramps in bed, you have to be careful about the sleeping posture. Though there is no scientific evidence to prove the same, expert opinion is that a proper posture that prevents the shortening of calf muscles, can be of much help in reducing the occurrence of leg cramps.
If you like to sleep on your back, prop your feet up with a pillow. When sleeping on your front side, try to hang your feet over the end of the bed. Make sure that the blankets are loose and do not force the toes and feet to point downwards during sleep. You may also try changing your mattress, as it could be the reason behind these nighttime leg cramps.
Adopt a balanced diet that is rich in necessary vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, potassium and calcium. Avoid wearing tight shoes for long hours.
Though there is no scientific evidence behind some popular leg cramp remedies, most of them are said to be truly effective. One such remedy is using soaps. It is said that a bar of soap kept beneath the bed sheet (near the leg) can provide relief from cramps. Till date, there is no explanation for this. But, as this remedy is not risky, it is worth a try.
Some people try licking a small amount of salt, while others pinch the skin between the nose and the upper lip, for relief from cramps. Other remedies include intake of pickle juice (one ounce) or a teaspoon of yellow mustard. A glass of water mixed with a pinch of baking soda is also believed to be a remedy for cramps.
In most cases, leg cramps are avoidable and can be prevented with simple home remedies. But, as mentioned above, medical attention is required if the condition is frequent and/or persistent or is associated with other symptoms.
Disclaimer: This is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice. Visiting your physician is the safest way to diagnose and treat any health condition.