Leg cramping occurs when the leg muscles suddenly contract, shorten and become painful and tight. Leg cramps usually affect the calf muscles, although they can occur in any part of the leg.
They usually last a few minutes, however the pain and tenderness can persist for up to 24 hours after the cramps have ended. 75% of leg cramps occur during nighttime They occur more often during pregnancy and in older individuals.
Leg cramping is a fairly common symptom that has little to no medical significance.
In the majority of cases there is no underlying condition that causes leg cramps to appear.
It is believed that they more often caused by nerve dysfunction and muscle fatigue, although the clear mechanism through which they occur is unclear.
Exercise is certainly considered a factor for the onset of cramps. Exerting a muscle for a prolonged period of time can trigger a leg cramp either after or during the physical strain.
Leg cramping has also been associated with electrolytes imbalance and dehydration can represent a trigger.
In some cases however, leg cramps are a symptom of an underlying health issue.
Medical conditions that can cause leg cramps:
- Addison’s disease: This condition occurs when the adrenal glands are not producing enough hormones.
- Alcohol abuse: Causes dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and liver dysfunction
- Cirrhosis: Is essentially a severe scarring of the liver, caused by infection with hepatitis B or C or from alcohol abuse. The condition is associated with hypertension, protein deficiency and electrolyte imbalances
- Diarrhea: A common cause of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
- Flatfeet: Can cause muscle fatigue
- Hypothyroidism: A condition in which the thyroid gland is not secreting adequate amounts of hormones.
- Chronic kidney failure: It is the gradual loss of kidney function. It causes build-up of fluid, electrolytes and wastes
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cancer treatment
- Lead poisoning: Can be caused by a build-up of lead over a long period of time (6 months)
- Sarcoidosis: The condition involves an abnormal growth of inflammatory cells that group up and form lumps in a variety of tissues
- Chronic Venous Insufficiency : This condition is caused by the vein’s inability to properly pump blood towards the heart
- Peripheral artery disease: The condition is caused by a narrowing of the arteries (usually due to deposits of fats on the arteries). The narrowing will result in a decreased arterial blood supply (and thus oxygen) to the leg
- Parkinson’s disease
- Medication: Naproxen, Teriparatide, IV Iron Sucrose, Conjugated estrogens, Raloxifene, oral birth control medication etc.
When to see seek medical attention
Seek a consultation with your doctor if:
- You have frequent leg cramps
- The cramps interfere with your sleep
- If you have other symptoms (swelling, redness, numbness, tingling)
- You have problems walking or cannot put weight on the affected leg
If an underlying cause for leg cramping is suspected, the doctor will perform a full physical examination and ask you a series of questions. Be prepared to answer:
- When does the leg cramping occur (time of day/night, after physical activities etc.)
- Since when have you been experiencing cramps
- How often do they occur
- Other symptoms that you are experiencing (swelling, shortness of breath, dizziness etc.)
Further tests might be required in order to set the diagnosis (blood tests, urine tests, ultrasound etc.)
In most cases leg cramps resolve on their own or simply by exercising/stretching the affected muscles. Often times, having an active life and exercising during the day will reduce the rate at which leg cramps occur.
If the leg cramps is due to an underlying condition, treatment of the illness will help relieve leg cramping as well.
Pregnancy during leg cramping usually passes after giving birth.
Stretches – In order to properly stretch your calf, place the front of your feet on a step. Make sure that your heels are in the air. Then slowly lower your heels slightly. Hold this position for a few seconds and then light your heels to your initial position. Repeat this action a few times
Medication – Anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to treat persistent cramps that do not ameliorate with exercise
Preventing leg cramps
Regularly stretching your lower leg muscles will help prevent and reduce the rate at which cramps occur. For those that experience leg cramps during nighttime, it is recommended to stretch the calves or perform a bit of light exercise before going to bed.
If you are an active person, make sure to keep hydrated during physical exercise and stretch before and after each work-out session.