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.
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.
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).
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. Of people over age 60, 33% 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. Seven percent of children will, as well. Approximately 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.
Three-quarters (75%) of all reported leg cramps happen at night.
An instance of a leg cramp can last from several seconds to several minutes.
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.
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.
Leg cramps are very common and normal, especially at night.
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.
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:
Women who are pregnant often have leg cramps during the day and at night.
Possible causes for leg cramps at night (nocturnal leg cramps) include:
Leg cramps are not likely to cause:
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:
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®).
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:
Leg cramps can also possibly be a sign of serious conditions including:
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:
Leg cramps are not likely to be a sign of a deficiency in:
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.
Your healthcare provider will need to know your medical history, medications and a description of what you’re experiencing. Be specific. Report your symptoms to your healthcare provider and include the following information:
Your healthcare provider will need to tell the difference between your leg cramps from other conditions that may resemble them:
To distinguish those differences, your healthcare provider may:
Blood, urine and other routine tests are not helpful in diagnosing leg cramps but they may help identify previously undiagnosed medical conditions that have leg cramps as a symptom. For example, your healthcare provider will likely perform typical tests such as taking your blood pressure, and that can reveal cardiac and vascular risks.
To help your healthcare provider diagnose you, they may ask the following questions about your leg cramps:
You want to get rid of a leg cramp the moment it strikes. You might be finishing up an exercise routine, or you might be awakened in the middle of the night. In moments like that there are, unfortunately, no magical injections that can instantly relieve your pain. However, there are eight steps to take to possibly get rid of a leg cramp:
Try this if your cramp is in your calf muscle: While standing (or sitting with your leg unfolded before you), straighten your leg and lift your foot until your toes are pointing at your shin. Pull on your toes if you are able to reach them. You could also try walking around on your heels.
At this time, there is no recommended medication that can prevent leg cramps 100% of the time. However, there are some prescription medications that show a little evidence of preventing leg cramps. Under your healthcare provider’s watchful eye, you might want to try the following:
No vitamin is likely to help with a leg cramp 100% of the time. However, some experts do recommend that you take a vitamin B12 complex.
Quinine was thought to show some promise with healing leg cramps, but it is no longer recommended. There are potentially life-threatening side effects: arrhythmias, thrombocytopenia and hypersensitivity reactions.
Go to the emergency department (ED) if a leg cramp lasts longer than 10 minutes or becomes unbearably painful. Also go if a leg cramp happens after you touch a substance that could be poisonous or infectious. For example, if you have a cut in your skin that touches dirt, you could get a bacterial infection like tetanus. Exposure to mercury, lead or other toxic substances should also be reason to go to the emergency department.
At this time, surgery is not recommended as a cure for leg cramps.
Experts can’t promise that you’ll never have a leg cramp again, but there are some steps you can take that might reduce your risk!
Try the following to prevent leg cramps in your calves: Stand about three feet (one meter) away from a wall. Lean forward. Touch the wall with your arms outstretched while keeping your feet flat. Count to five before you stop, and do it over and over again for at least five minutes. Repeat three times per day.
Leg cramps don’t have a cure at this time. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent leg cramps (see the “Prevention” section) and manage your leg cramps (see the “Management and Treatment” section).
The severity of a leg cramp is difficult if not impossible to predict. Some people see improvement with prevention and treatment plans, while others struggle. It is possible that your cramps will feel worse and happen more often as you age.
Come up with a treatment plan with your healthcare provider that includes a prevention plan and an in-the-moment treatment plan. Ideas for a prevention plan include several activities you may want to do every day:
Your in-the-moment treatment plan could include the eight steps mentioned in the Management and Treatment section:
See your healthcare provider if your leg cramps are unbearably painful, happen frequently or last for a long time. Also, talk to your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following symptoms in addition to leg cramps:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Leg cramps can be unpredictable and agonizing. They can affect your sleep, your exercise routine and your general quality of life. They’re common – very normal – and, fortunately, temporary, and there are steps you can take to manage them. Do your best to avoid risk factors, avoid medications with leg cramps as a side effect and take recommended preventative measures.
If you’re concerned about the severity and duration of your leg cramps, or think that they may be caused by a serious condition, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider. Ask questions and voice your concerns. You don’t have to just “live with” leg cramps.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/03/2020.