Leg cramps are a sudden and painful tightening of the muscles in your thigh, calf, or feet. These involuntary muscle spasms in your legs are also called charley horses, which can occur any time, whether you’re in the middle of your workout routine or while lying in bed.
Recurrent leg cramps can be debilitating and annoying at the same time. They can last for a few seconds up to 5-10 minutes and can leave tenderness in the affected area up to 24 hours. Let’s take a look at some of the causes of leg cramps and the things you can do to manage or relieve them.
What Are the Causes of Leg Cramps?
Our muscles normally contract and relax. However, when our muscles involuntary contract and are unable to relax, muscle cramps happen. Severe pain from these cramps can be experienced when there is prolonged muscle contraction.
Most leg cramps are not a cause for concern and quickly resolve without any medical intervention. Some of the most common causes of leg cramps include inadequate warm-up stretches before exercising or engaging in physical activities, muscle overuse, or being in the same position for a long period of time. However, certain people may experience leg cramps due to underlying health conditions, which include:
- Thyroid problem
- Liver disorders
- Nerve damage
- Insufficient blood supply
- Mineral deficiency
- Low electrolyte levels
There are also people who are more prone to getting leg cramps. They include the elderly, athletes, pregnant women, and the overweight and obese. Fortunately, there are simple remedies that you can try to help ease the pain from leg cramps.
What to Do When You Get Leg Cramps
If you’re getting leg cramps, the following remedies may provide support and relief:
1. Stretches or Massages
If your leg cramps are due to exercise and other strenuous activities, you can simply stretch the affected part of your leg and gently massage it to help the muscle relax and stop the contraction. You can prevent these painful leg cramps by making sure that you stretch before and after your exercise or fitness routine.
If you have nighttime leg cramps in bed, stretch out the affected muscle by standing up and pushing your heel down to put weight on it. Remain in this position until the cramp goes away. If it’s difficult for you to stand, you can straighten your leg and pull the top of your foot toward you. Hold this position until you feel better.
2. Heat and Cold Therapy
Heat can help relax and loosen tissues as well as increase the blood flow in the affected area. Apply a hot compress such as a warm towel or place a heating pad to your tight muscles to achieve relief. Another option for heat therapy includes soaking in a nice warm bath or taking a hot shower. Alternately, cold therapy can help relieve soreness or tenderness because of its numbing effect.
3. Stay Hydrated
Fitness enthusiasts and athletes are often at risk of getting leg cramps due to dehydration, particularly when they excessively lose fluid through sweating. In most cases, leg cramping happens during hot weather. Getting leg cramps can also be an early indication or symptom of heat stroke.
Since one of the most common causes of legs cramps is dehydration, make sure that you are drinking plenty of liquids every day. Keeping yourself hydrated at all times can effectively prevent painful leg cramps because fluids can maintain good cell hydration, which enables proper muscle contraction and relaxation.
4. Replenish Lost Electrolytes
Leg cramping can be triggered by an electrolyte imbalance. Aside from sickness and excessive sweating, another common cause of an electrolyte imbalance is consuming an unhealthy diet. Not consuming enough foods that contain the essential nutrients that our body need can cause leg cramps. Instead of eating highly processed foods, choose healthier alternatives, which are high in vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes.
Eating foods that are high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium can help stop and prevent leg cramping. Other electrolytes that support fluid balance, muscle function, and nerve function in the body include sodium and chloride. Most electrolytes can be obtained from fruits and vegetables, including coconut water and bone broth.
Here's a list you can follow:
- Potassium: Fruits such as papayas, bananas, and dates, including green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, and peas (1)
- Magnesium: Whole grains, green leafy veggies, nuts, and seeds (2)
- Calcium: Dairy, seafood, green leafy vegetables, and orange (3)
- Sodium: Table salt, cheese, and pickled foods
- Chloride: Table salt
One of the triggers of leg cramps is poor blood flow in the legs. Wearing compression socks or sleeves can definitely help prevent leg cramps and alleviate the pain associated with it because they can help enhance the distribution of blood to the calves and legs (4).
Aside from improving leg discomfort, compression garments can help tired legs to recover faster with increased endurance. When there is an excessive level of lactic acid accumulated in the muscles during intense exercises, pain and tenderness develop afterward.
Using graduated compression garments in your legs can boost your circulation and help prevent lactic acid build up in your leg muscles. Since wearing compression garments can help improve the flow of blood in your legs, you also tend to recover faster and feel better with lesser discomforts.
To further prevent leg cramps and discomfort, don’t forget to wear your compression garment before exercising, running, and other strenuous physical activities. When worn during any of these activities, you’ll notice that your overall performance and endurance also tend to improve. Continue using compression garments until your leg pain and other discomforts are relieved.
However, if you frequently get severe leg cramps that are not exercise-induced and if the above remedies and treatments do not work, it is highly recommended to see your healthcare provider for further evaluation.
Severe leg cramps without an obvious cause may be due to serious underlying conditions, which include nerve damage, hormonal imbalance, poor nutrition, and circulation problem, including problems with medications.
- Examples of foods that contain potassium, a. (2012). World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK132468/
- Office of Dietary Supplements - Magnesium. (2018). Ods.od.nih.gov. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/#h3
- A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods - National Osteoporosis Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nof.org/patients/treatment/calciumvitamin-d/a-guide-to-calcium-rich-foods
- Jeanneret C, e. (2014). Impact of compression stockings on calf-vein diameters and on quality of life parameters in subjects with painful legs. - PubMed - NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25007905