Leg cramps are a common, uncomfortable condition, experienced by a wide variety of people. Whether you are an athlete, a gym enthusiast, live a complete sedentary lifestyle or anything in between, it is likely that you will experience leg cramps at some point in your life.
Leg cramps are muscle spasms caused by a strong contraction. They are most commonly experienced in the lower part of the leg such as the calf muscles, but can also be experienced in the thigh muscles (quadriceps) or hamstrings. They are more likely to affect people over 60 and during times of rest such as sleeping or sitting still. They can vary in terms of pain, discomfort, and severity, and may be bad enough in some cases to wake the sufferer or regularly disturb their sleep.
There are thought to be many factors that contribute to leg cramps, such as age, overall health, nutrition and hydration, sleeping position, exercise levels, and side effects of existing medication. Below are some of the simplest and most effective ways to ease uncomfortable leg cramps and prevent them in the future.
Muscle spasm and cramping of any kind can easily be caused by an over-exerted muscle that has built up lactic acid during exercise. This can be a familiar feeling for athletes or sports enthusiasts such as runners, cyclists, or weightlifters. However, muscle exertion may be an easy daily requirement for some and a huge physical task for others. For example, while sitting and rising may come naturally and without much muscle exertion for some people, for others, such as the elderly, the unwell, or those recovering from injury, this may take considerably more effort. As a result, the muscles can become fatigued by the end of the day and will have accumulated lactic acid, as well as minute tears in the tissue. Stretching, both before and after exertion, can be a highly effective remedy.
Cramps in legs and arms can often be caused by sitting or lying in an awkward position in which the body cannot fully relax. First ensure that you are sitting or lying comfortably and in such a way that ensures your circulation can function effectively. This might mean sitting with a straight, but not tense, back with the soles of both feet touching the floor. It may mean lying on your back with your head and shoulders gently propped up and your legs outstretched ahead. From here, gently stretch the muscle by engaging the foot and gently pulling the toes back towards your shin. This does not have to be done manually unless you wish to. Simply engage the muscles and lift the toes, and feel the calf muscle gently stretch. Hold for 10 seconds or for as long as is comfortable and then relax. Repeat on each side for sets of three, before and after rising.
The position of the legs in bed has also been shown to be a significant contributor to leg cramps. Try to ensure that bedclothes are not too tight so as to restrict the movement of the legs or cause the toes to be held in a downward-pointing position.
Massaging affected muscles can be an effective way to relieve cramps in legs. Sometimes, however, we may need assistance. If we are experiencing regular cramps in areas that are difficult to reach or too low on the leg for us to comfortably stretch, we will need help with massage. Sports massage therapists are trained in massage techniques that are both gentle and effective. They can help to repair tissue damage by ensuring good circulation and blood flow to the area, which supports faster recovery. They can also help to relax muscles that are spasming regularly. For those who cannot travel, some sports massage therapists will arrange home visits, or a friend or partner may be able to help. If performing massage on yourself, move slowly and gently, building up any pressure as needed. A combination of stretching and massage is perhaps especially effective in cases where circulation and poor blood flow is causing cramps in legs, arms and other areas.
When seeking a massage professional for conditions such as leg cramps, ensure that your practitioner is fully trained. Many excellent massage specialists are trained for therapeutic and relaxation purposes but do not have experience in injury treatment, for example. If in doubt, check with your GP and seek a referral to a qualified physiotherapist or sports massage therapist. If you feel the cramping is only minimal and not debilitating, however, regular therapeutic massages such as at a spa or salon can still be very beneficial.
Nutrition and Hydration
Effective nutrition and hydration can be easily overlooked as causes of leg cramps, but they are significant contributors. Excessive intake of alcohol can affect circulation and muscle function, and more severe cramping may be experienced as a result. Alcohol consumption can also contribute to dehydration, which is an especially big contributor to cramping. Low levels of fluid in the body can inhibit muscles from expanding and contracting effectively. Sufferers of any form of cramping should ensure that they have a regular intake of fluids and do not become dehydrated.
Carry a water bottle and sip from it throughout the day to keep regular levels of hydration. This is more effective than aiming to drink large quantities at short intervals such as when waking up or just before bed. This may disturb your sleep and mean that you will have to get up in the night, further inhibiting your muscles’ chance of fully relaxing. Hydration can also be improved by eating fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, and reducing salty snacks and meals. Sugary drinks may quench thirst initially, but they have a dehydrating effect overall, because they cause more frequent urination. Juice as a treat or for additional vitamins is acceptable, but water should be consumed more frequently than tea and coffee, as these can also have a diuretic effect.
In some cases, leg cramps are persistent, painful, or disturbing to sleep, and other adjustments such as to diet, hydration, and exercise do not prove effective. In such cases, referral to a trained physiotherapist can be helpful in eliminating any other physical causes, such as the misalignment of joints or hidden muscular injuries. Physiotherapists have specialised experience, and access to resources and equipment that will allow them to conduct a detailed analysis of physical causes of the problem. This may be anything from underdeveloped or overdeveloped muscles, muscular tears, misaligned joints, postural problems, and more. On the basis of this information, they can then devise a detailed programme for the improvement of the symptoms and recovery, or ways to manage the symptoms effectively.
Physiotherapists will usually require patients to complete regular stretches and exercises, and then to assess improvements. These are likely to first be performed in front of the practitioner to ensure that no bad habits are being formed or additional problems created. Then the stretches and exercises can be performed regularly at home over a number of weeks or months, with intermittent check-ups. A high level of self-discipline and regularly engaging with the exercises is key to seeing results and improvement.
Medication and Anti-Inflammatory Products
In severe cases, taking some form of medication can help to ease cramps in legs and other areas, but in some cases, other medication may also be the cause of the cramps. Dehydration is a common cause of muscle spasms and cramps in legs, and if you are taking a medicine with a diuretic effect—meaning that you will pass water more frequently—dehydration can occur much more quickly. Diuretic medication might include products such as statins, lithium, cimetidine, terbutaline, nifedipine, salbutamol, phenothiazines and penicillamine medication.
However, anti-inflammatory products and other medications can be very effective in the treatment of leg cramps. Anti-inflammatory medication such as tablets or topical gels can sometimes be combined in small, safe doses. An ibuprofen tablet can be taken, for example, while a gel is applied to the area if it is tender or swollen, following or during cramping.
If tenderness or pain is experienced after cramping, paracetamol can help to reduce the pain and improve comfort and sleep. If you are ever in doubt then you should speak with a doctor or a clinician for a professional diagnosis.
For more information on relieving leg cramps, visit the NHS website.