Nighttime leg cramps are muscle spasms in the calf or feet. They can occur one or many times during the night, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes. Some people experience them regularly; others only on isolated occurrences.
What causes severe leg cramps at night?
Low fluid levels in the body can result in calcium and phosphorus imbalances that can cause leg cramps. This can occur from taking diuretics, excessive perspiration, vomiting, and diarrhea. Water is important for transporting vitamins, minerals, and other substances throughout the body. Hydration is not the same when drinking caffeine or alcohol, since they are diuretics and end up dehydrating a person even further. Muscle needs hydration to function properly, without it cramping is more likely to occur. That is why athletes who do not replenish their water lost from sports and exercise end up with cramps. Likewise, low water intake in an otherwise sedentary person can cause muscles twitches during sleep.
Another reason for night-time leg cramps is mineral deficiencies. Low levels of calcium, potassium and magnesium are quoted as causal factors of night-time leg cramps. While they can all be found in things we eat, some foods lose mineral levels when processed or refined. For example, nearly 85% of magnesium in grains is lost when finely milled.
Calcium deficiency is also responsible for muscle tremors and twitching at night and may lead to night-time leg cramps. However, milk and other dairy products do not make effective calcium replacement sources because of their phosphorus levels. A non-phosphorus containing calcium supplement is possibly the best alternative. Another mineral easily depleted is potassium, which is the most important mineral regarding muscle activity, serving as an electrolyte in the body and helping to balance body fluids. It also plays an essential role in muscle control and acts as a co-factor in muscle building.
Other cases have been linked with the night time leg cramp occurrences:
- Sitting for long periods of time
- Over-exertion of the muscles
- Standing or working on concrete floors
- Sitting improperly
More rarely, night time leg cramps have been linked to certain medications, or with certain conditions. These include:
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Endocrine disorders
- Contraceptive pills
Consequences of Night-time Leg Cramps
Nocturnal leg cramps like restless legs syndrome rarely have any serious consequences. However, severe and persistent symptoms can cause chronic insomnia and considerable mental distress.
How to stop leg cramps at night
The treatments for leg cramps at night are generally lifestyle changes. Everyone with leg cramps should drink plenty of water to maintain adequate fluid levels. Taking non phosphate calcium with addition of potassium and magnesium supplements may help relieve night time and/or spontaneous leg cramps. Drinking tonic soda (which contains small amounts of quinine) before bedtime may also be helpful.
Furthermore, to prevent night time leg cramps perform the following:
- Nightly stretching exercises before sleeping.
- Relieve with local massage, movement or heat packs.
- Keep blankets and sheets loose around your feet so that toes are not distorted as this causes calf muscles to contract and cramp.
- Propping the feet up higher than the torso may help too. Once a cramp begins, the patient should straighten the leg, flex the foot up or grab the toes and pull forward.
- Wear appropriate shoes.