Leg Cramps at Night

What are leg cramps?

Leg cramps are sudden, involuntary, intense muscle pains usually in your calf, foot, or thigh. You might also know them as a “charley horse.” Sometimes the cramp may cause your leg to spasm – to tighten uncontrollably. Although painful to live with, cramps are generally harmless.

What does a leg cramp feel like?

A leg cramp feels like a clenched, contracted muscle tightened into a knot. It can be severely uncomfortable, painful, or even unbearable. Your muscles in the area might hurt for hours after the cramp goes away.

How do I stop a leg cramp?

Try forcefully stretching the affected muscle (for example, stretch your calf muscle by flexing your foot upward). Jiggle your leg, massage it, or force yourself to walk. It might also help to apply ice or heat – use a heating pad or take a warm bath. (Read the “Management and Treatment” section for more tips.)

Unfortunately, there are no pills or injections that instantly relieve a leg cramp when it’s happening. There are, however, ways that may prevent the cramp from happening in the first place (see the “Prevention” section).

What are nocturnal leg cramps?

Leg cramps at night happen when you’re not very active, or when you’re asleep. They may wake you up, make it harder for you to fall back asleep and leave you feeling sore all night. Yearly, monthly, weekly, nightly – the frequency of leg cramps depends on the person. Nocturnal leg cramps can happen to anyone at any age, but they happen most often to older adults. 33% of people over age 60 will have a leg cramp at night at least once every two months. Nearly every adult age 50 and older will have them at least one time. 7% of children will, as well. 40% of pregnant women will experience leg cramps at night. The reason behind that is thought to be that the extra weight of pregnancy strains the muscles.

75% of all reported leg cramps happen at night.

How long do leg cramps last?

An instance of a leg cramp can last from several seconds to several minutes.

Who gets leg cramps?

The older you are, the more likely you are to have leg cramps. This is because your tendons (the tissues that connect your muscles to your bones) naturally shorten as you age. You’re also more likely to get them if you’re a woman. Up to 60% of adults get leg cramps at night, as do up to 40% of children and teenagers.

Are leg cramps a sign of something serious?

Leg cramps can sometimes be a symptom of a serious health condition. (See the “Symptoms and Causes” section.) If you are concerned that you have a serious health condition, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider and report your symptoms, including your leg cramps.

How common are leg cramps?

Leg cramps are very common and normal.

What is the difference between leg cramps and Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?

Although both nocturnal leg cramps (leg cramps at night) and restless legs syndrome tend to happen to you at night or when you’re at rest, restless legs syndrome doesn’t cause the severe pain. Restless legs syndrome is uncomfortable, but not agonizing. It’s a crawling sensation that makes you want to move your legs. When you do move, the restlessness stops, but there is still discomfort.

What causes leg cramps?

Some leg cramps happen for no known reason and they are called “idiopathic” cramps. “Secondary” leg cramps are a symptom or complication of a more serious health condition. The primary cause of idiopathic leg cramps is up for debate. Possible causes of them include:

  • Involuntary nerve discharges.
  • Restriction in the blood supply.
  • Stress.
  • Too much high-intensity exercise.

Women who are pregnant often have leg cramps during the day and at night.

Possible causes for nocturnal leg cramps (leg cramps at night) include:

  • Sitting for long periods of time.
  • Overusing the muscles.
  • Standing or working on concrete floors.
  • Sitting improperly.

Leg cramps are not likely to cause:

  • Broken bones.
  • Fainting.
  • Nausea.
  • Numbness.

What medications may cause leg cramps?

Drugs have side effects. It’s possible that a prescription you’re taking could be causing your leg cramps. In that case, work closely with your healthcare provider to determine the pros and cons of the medication vs. its side effects. It’s possible that your healthcare provider may be able to put you on a different medication that doesn’t have leg cramps as a side effect. Medicines that have leg cramps as a side effect include:

  • Albuterol/Ipratropium (Combivent®)
  • Conjugated Estrogens
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin®).
  • Conjugated estrogens.
  • Diuretics.
  • Gabapentin (Neurontin®).
  • Naproxen (Naprosyn®).
  • Pregabalin (Lyrica®)
  • Statins.
  • Zolpidem (Ambien®).

Others may include: Amoxicillin, bromocriptine (Parlodel), bupropion (Wellbutrin), celecoxib (Celebrex®), cetirizine (Zyrtec), chromium, cinacalcet (Sensipar), ciprofloxacin (Cipro), citalopram (Celexa), donepezil (Aricept), eszopiclone (Lunesta), fluoxetine (Prozac), IV iron sucrose, lansoprazole (Prevacid), levalbuterol, levothyroxine, metformin, niconitis acid, nifedipine, rivastigmine (Exelon), sertraline (Zoloft), telmisartan (Micardis), teriparatide (Forteo®) and teriparatide raloxifene (Evista®).

What medical problems can cause leg cramps?

Sometimes leg cramps happen to you for no reason, but other times they could possibly be a sign or symptom of a health condition. If you have any of the following conditions, it’s possible that your leg cramps are a result of that condition. Also keep in mind that if you don’t already know if you have any of these conditions, your leg cramps may be a sign that you do. Always consult your healthcare provider if you think your leg cramps are a symptom of a more serious medical condition.

Leg cramps can possibly be a sign of lifestyle choices such as:

  • Alcoholism: An addiction to alcohol.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Dehydration: The lack of sufficient water in the body. (This sign is debated among experts.)

Leg cramps can also possibly be a sign of serious conditions including:

  • ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/Lou Gehrig’s disease): Progressive neuromuscular disease.
  • Cardiovascular disease: Heart conditions caused by blood clots or diseased blood vessels. Also, coronary artery disease: The narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver: Scarring of the liver.
  • Diabetes: A disease that prevents your body from properly using the energy from the food you eat.
  • Flat feet: The absence of the supportive arch in the foot.
  • Hypokalemia: Low potassium levels in your blood.
  • Kidney failure (hemodialysis): A condition in which one or both kidneys no longer work correctly.
  • Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease): The corrosion of the cartilage that protects your bones. Also, lumbar canal stenosis: A narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back.
  • Parkinson’s disease: A neurological movement disorder.
  • Peripheral artery disease: Narrowing of the arteries. Also, peripheral neuropathy: Damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves.

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can cause nerve damage, which may cause leg cramps.

There are rumors that leg cramps can also be a sign of the following conditions. Fortunately, that is not the case. Leg cramps are unlikely to be a sign of:

  • Labor (giving birth).
  • Lung cancer.
  • Menopause.
  • Multiple sclerosis.

Leg cramps are not likely to be a sign of a deficiency in:

  • Alanine transaminase.
  • Albumin.
  • Bilirubin.
  • Calcium.
  • Creatinine.
  • Glucose.
  • Magnesium.
  • Zinc, vitamin B12 or vitamin D.

What are the warning signs that leg cramps are coming?

Unfortunately, leg cramps happen very suddenly. There are no warning signs. However, there are risk factors such as pregnancy and the use of medications that have leg cramps as a side effect.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/03/2020.

References

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