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.
Although anyone can get nocturnal leg cramps, the number of people who get them increases with age. Slightly more women than men experience these leg cramps.
Nocturnal leg cramps have been reported by:
Some 20 percent of patients who experience nocturnal leg cramps on a daily basis seek medical attention.
No. While both types of leg disturbances tend to happen at night, or at rest, restless leg syndrome does not cause severe, cramping pain. While restless legs syndrome can be painful, it 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:
Usually your doctor only needs your medical history to make the diagnosis of nocturnal leg cramps. Your doctor may ask you such questions as:
Routine blood tests are not helpful in diagnosing nocturnal leg cramps but they may help identify previously undiagnosed medical conditions. A physical exam and other tests may be done to help determine other causes for the muscle cramping.
Forcefully stretching the affected muscle is usually the most effective way to relieve the cramp (flex your foot upward). 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. Keeping bed covers loose and not tucked in may also be helpful.
A trial of vitamin B12 complex or diltiazem may be helpful. 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. In addition, some researchers say there is not enough evidence at this time to recommend the use of analgesics, anti-epileptic drugs, magnesium, verapamil, or vitamin E to reduce nocturnal leg cramps.
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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: 05/31/2019