Nocturnal leg cramps are pains that occur in your legs at night. They usually wake you from sleep, but you can also cramp while you're awake at night during periods of inactivity. These cramps usually happen in your calf muscles, less often in your 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. Your muscles be sore 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% of patients who experience nocturnal leg cramps on a daily basis go to a healthcare provider for help.
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's more of a discomfort or a crawling sensation that makes you feel the need to move your legs. As you move the restlessness is relieved, but discomfort returns when movement stops. With nocturnal leg cramps, the tightened muscle needs to be actively stretched out for relief.
There's no sure cause of nocturnal leg cramps, 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. Other questions your doctor may ask include:
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 or jiggling or massaging your leg. Warm baths or showers may be helpful, and applying ice also works for some people. Keeping bed covers loose and not tucked in may help in preventing cramps.
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