Nocturnal leg cramps are pains that occur in the legs during the night. They usually cause awakenings from sleep, but they may also occur while awake at night during periods of inactivity. These cramps mostly happen in the calf muscles but can also occur in the thighs or feet. Nocturnal leg cramps are quite painful and cause the affected muscles to feel tight or knotted. Symptoms may last from several seconds up to several minutes. There might also be muscle soreness after the cramp goes away. Nocturnal leg cramps are more common in adults over age 50, but they also do occur in younger adults and children. Both men and women seem to be equally affected.
Anyone can get these types of cramps. However, they tend to be found more often in people who are middle-aged or older.
No. While both types of leg disturbances tend to happen at night, or at rest, restless leg syndrome does not cause pain or cramping. Restless legs syndrome is more of a discomfort, or a crawling sensation, that results in a desire to move the legs. While moving, the restlessness is relieved, but the discomfort returns when movement stops. This does not happen with nocturnal leg cramps where the tightened muscle needs to be actively stretched out for relief.
The cause of nocturnal leg cramps is often times unknown, but some cases have been linked to:
Nocturnal leg cramps have also been linked to certain medical conditions and medications. These include:
If leg cramps are frequent and severe, your doctor may order lab work to ensure that there are no electrolyte imbalances.
Forcefully stretching the affected muscle is usually the most effective way to relieve the cramp. You might be able to relieve the cramp by walking around, jiggling your leg, or massaging the leg. Warm baths or showers may be helpful. Alternatively, applying ice has also shown some benefit.
If known, always try to treat the underlying cause first. Vitamin E supplements or Vitamin B complex may be helpful. Magnesium supplements have also shown some benefit, mostly in pregnant women. Diphenhydramine and calcium channel blockers may be suggested by your doctor. Quinine was previously used for the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps. However, due to its potential for serious and life-threatening adverse effects (cardiac arrhythmias, thrombocytopenia, and hypersensitivity reactions), it is no longer recommended as a treatment option.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/30/2014