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Painful Leg Cramps Can Stop You in Your Tracks

Person massaging their calf muscle

Leg cramps can strike at any time – while walking, running, sitting, even sleeping. Suddenly the muscles in your calf or thigh seize up and become locked in a contracted position, causing intense pain that can last from a few seconds to ten minutes or more. Once the spasm has passed, some people may experience muscle soreness for hours or days afterwards.

“Muscle spasms in the legs are quite common and can occur in people of any age – however, they are more prevalent in older adults, with nearly 60 percent of people over 50 reporting having leg cramps either occasionally or with some frequency,” says Lauren Hadney, DO, internal medicine specialist at University Hospitals.

What Causes Leg Cramps?

The cause of leg cramps in otherwise healthy people is not fully understood. However, research is ongoing and there are several evidence-based theories, including:

  • Poor blood flow to the legs due to pregnancy or excess weight
  • Dehydration
  • Being inactive (sitting) for long periods of time
  • Vitamin deficiency, specifically vitamins B1, B12 and D
  • Depleted minerals in the bloodstream, including magnesium, potassium, sodium, phosphorus and calcium. Mineral depletion can be due to a poor diet or certain medications that cause increased urination, like some high blood pressure medications or diuretics.
  • Other medications, including those used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, asthma and high cholesterol

Home Remedies for Short-Term Relief

When a leg cramp strikes, the pain can be intense – you just want it to stop. However, the body’s natural reaction to pain is stress and anxiety, which causes further tension in the muscles and can make the problem worse. It’s important to try to relax and breathe through the pain. And, although it might be difficult, standing up to walk and putting weight on the affected leg may help the pain recede more quickly. Other tips include:

  • Stretching. Gentle but forceful stretching of the affected muscle can help resolve the cramp more quickly. For a calf cramp, hold the leg straight out and flex the top of your foot toward your face. For a thigh cramp, grasp your ankle and pull your leg up toward your buttock – this can be done while sitting or standing. If done standing, hold onto a chair for support.
  • Massage. Firmly massaging the sore muscle will increase blood flow to the area and help relieve the cramp.
  • Heat. Applying heat will also increase blood flow and relax the cramping muscle. Use a heating pad, hot towel or a stream of hot water in the shower.
  • Cold. The application of an ice pack (a bag of frozen peas works great) will reduce swelling and inflammation and help the cramp to resolve more quickly.

After the immediate pain has subsided, any lingering muscle soreness can be relieved with a warm bath and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.

Preventing Leg Cramps

Because the exact cause is unknown, there are no guaranteed ways to stop leg cramps from occurring. However, the following common-sense tips may reduce the frequency, duration and severity of symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially when active in hot weather.
  • Stretch your leg muscles frequently throughout the day and always prior to exercise.
  • Avoid over exertion in extreme heat or cold.
  • Break up long periods of sitting - get up to move around and stretch frequently.
  • Talk to your doctor about the medications you take and the possible benefits of vitamin/mineral supplements. Never stop taking your medicines unless advised to do so by your doctor.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Wear supportive, well-fitted shoes.
  • Keep bed sheets and blankets loose around your feet so leg movements aren’t restricted during sleep.

The Quinine Question

“Patients often ask if drinking tonic water with quinine can help prevent leg cramps,” says Dr. Hadney. “Although there are anecdotal reports that suggest it might have some preventive value, quinine is not FDA approved or recommended for the treatment of muscle cramps. It is, in fact, only approved for the treatment of malaria and can lead to side effects such as bleeding problems, abnormal heartbeat, nausea and kidney damage,” she adds. “The amount of quinine in a glass of tonic water is negligible, however, and if people believe that it helps them, drinking small amounts is not harmful, unless your doctor advises against it.”

When to See Your Doctor

Although leg cramps are generally harmless, if you have severe, persistent cramps that disrupt your sleep and affect your quality of life, it’s time to talk to your doctor. There may be an underlying medical condition contributing to the spasms that needs to be diagnosed and treated. These may include:

In addition, you should seek medical help if symptoms such as weakness, numbness, nausea or severe sweating linger after the muscle cramp has resolved.

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University Hospitals has a team of primary care providers with the expertise to diagnose and treat a full spectrum of medical conditions, including leg cramps. If an underlying medical cause is found, our experts will refer you to the appropriate specialist for additional care.