BHealthy Blog

Nighttime Leg Cramps, Explained

Man Sitting on Edge of Bed

By Dr. David Gerson, Sherwood Family Medical Center

Imagine you’re lying down and your lower leg seizes. The pain is intense enough to make you want to scream. It doesn’t let up, and your muscle is hard to the touch. When you try to move your leg, it feels paralyzed. Sound familiar?

How common is this?

Nocturnal leg cramps affect up to 60 percent of adults, and are more common among women and older adults. Sometimes referred to as muscle spasms or charley horses, they occur when one or more of the muscles in the leg tighten involuntarily. Most of the time, the muscle relaxes itself in less than 10 minutes. Your leg might feel sore or tender for up to a day afterward.

Causes

Most of the time, no apparent cause for night leg cramps can be identified. In general, night leg cramps are likely to be related to muscle fatigue and nerve problems. Though leg cramps at night can be intensely painful, they aren’t typically serious. Most people who experience them don’t need medical treatment.

How to Relieve the Cramp

Massage your leg. Rubbing the affected muscle may help it relax. Use one or both hands to gently knead and loosen the muscle.

Stretch. If the cramp is in your calf, straighten your leg. Flex your foot so that it’s lifted to face you and your toes are pointing toward you.

Walk on your heels. This will activate the muscles opposite your calf, allowing it to relax.

Apply heat. Heat can soothe tight muscles. Apply a hot towel, hot water bottle or heating pad to the affected area. Taking a warm bath or shower may also help.

Drink pickle juice. Some evidence suggests that drinking a small amount of pickle juice may help relieve muscle cramps.

Take an over-the-counter painkiller if your leg is sore after.

How to Prevent the Cramp

Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids allow for normal muscle function. You might need to adjust how much fluid you drink based on factors such as the weather, your age, activity level and medication you’re taking.

Stretch your legs. Stretching your calves and hamstrings before bed can reduce the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps.

Ride a stationary bike. A few minutes of easy pedaling might help loosen up your leg muscles before you go to sleep.

Change your sleeping position. You should avoid sleeping in positions in which your feet are pointing downward. Try sleeping on your back with a pillow behind your knees.

Avoid heavy or tucked-in bedding. This could push your feet downward while you sleep. Choose loose, untucked sheets and a comforter that will allow you to keep your feet and toes upright while you sleep.

Choose supportive footwear. Poor footwear can aggravate issues with the nerves and muscles in your feet and legs, especially if you have flat feet.

When to See a Doctor

If frequent cramps are disrupting your sleep, make an appointment with your doctor. They might prescribe a muscle relaxant to prevent cramps. If your cramps are related to another medical condition, they can help manage that too. If you don’t have a primary care provider, find a Baptist Health provider here.