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Night Cramps-- Why Your Legs Seize Up At

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September 24, 2008, last updated September 30, 2014

By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Doctors and
Nurses and other members of our Editorial Board.]

Here's a common problem. You are sleeping soundly when
you are awakened by a terrible pain in your legs. Your calf
muscle has seized up, a terrible tightness in your calf,
cramping horribly.  Nothing you can do makes it go away.
You just hang on, bearing up under the pain for what
seems like forever until it subsides.

What causes leg cramps and leg pain at night? And why do
they so often affect the calf muscles? Are there any foods
or exercises you can do to reduce leg cramps at night?

Night cramps are something of a medical mystery. Scientists
believe that they are caused as the body tries to process
electrolytes at night. Some researchers also believe they
are related to diabetes.

Here are some suspected causes of night cramps:

  • Lack of potassium in your diet

  • Too much salt in your diet

  • Muscle overexertion

  • Prolonged sitting

  • Dehydration

  • Pregnancy

  • Diabetes

  • Neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson's disease

  • Certain medications, such as albuterol, niacin,
    diuretics, and some calcium channel blockers, anti-
    psychotic medications, Alzheimer's medications such
    as donepizil (Arcept),raloxifene (used for menopause
    symptoms) and medicines for Parkinson's such as

  • Alcohol use

What Can You Do to Stop Night Leg Cramps or Charlie

Eat a banana a day. Bananas contain high concentrations
of potassium. So do white beans.  Lack of potassium may
be the most common cause of night leg cramps.

Skip the salt. Too much salt chases down the potassium
in your blood, leading to cramps.

3. Take a warm bath. Relax the muscles of your legs with a
warm bath before bedtime.

Oil rub. Massage the leg muscles before you sleep with
baby oil or olive oil. This may help the muscles to better
process the electrolytes.

Drink an electrolyte replacement drink. A small glass of
sports drink may help.

Maintain Healthy levels of Calcium. Calcium deficiencies
can also cause muscle cramps. Eat
calcium-rich foods such
as sardines and dairy.

Hang Your Feet Over the Bed to Prevent Cramps?
Hanging your feet over the edge of the bed relieve night
cramps in some cases, a 2012 study from the University of
Newcastle in Australia has suggested.

Though the study did not suggest why this remedy works
for some people, it seems plausible that these people might
be suffering from peripheral arterial disease, also known as
"PAD". PAD occurs when your arteries become blocked or
narrow and not enough blood can reach your lower limb,
causing pain.  

Many sufferers of PAD report pain in their calves at night
and also find relief by hanging their feet over the bed.
(Read more about
PAD and remedies that help.)

What You Should Not Use for Night Cramps

Many people take quinine to relieve night time cramps. But
the use of quinine is controversial. In fact, quinine has
been banned or discouraged from use as a remedy by
several health authorities. For example, in 2004 the
Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration withdrew its
support for quinine as a remedy for cramps, largely
because of the risk that users will develop
thromocytopaenia, a condition which causes excessive
internal bleeding or bruising.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has
repeatedly advised people not to use quinine except for
malaria. It has warned that "there are no data indicating
that quinine is effective for the treatment of nocturnal leg
cramps or other musculoskeletal disorders, and given the
potential for life-threatening adverse events,
[practitioners] should use extreme caution in off-label


Stretching Reduces Night Cramps

Stretching your calf muscles before you go to sleep reduces
night cramps. According to a new 2012 study from
researchers at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in
Groningen, the Netherlands, people over 55 years old can
decrease the amount and severity of muscle cramps in their
legs by simply stretching their calf and hamstring muscles
at night immediately before you go to sleep.

One of the best ways to stretch your calf muscles is to flex
your foot, like a cat, for about 10 repetitions per foot. To
stretch your hamstrings, sit with your legs stretched out in
front of you on your bed and bend toward your feet.

Leg Pain At Night May Mean Artery Problems

If your legs are painful at night and the only way you can
relive it is to hang your foot outside your bed, then your
pain may be caused by a condition known and peripheral
artery disease. If you are over 55, you have a greater than
10% chance of suffering from peripheral artery disease,
studies have found. This disease, if untreated, puts you at a
greater risk for heart disease and stroke. (Read more about
natural remedies for peripheral artery disease.]

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