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Blog Sleep & Wellness

What Causes Leg Cramps at Night? 4 Remedies for Pain Relief

From the Puffy Editorial Team | 7 min read.
What Causes Leg Cramps at Night? 4 Remedies for Pain Relief

Just when you think you’re slipping into a blissful slumber, a sharp pain shoots up your lower leg. The muscles feel tight, knotted, and uncomfortable, and when you try to move your leg or wriggle your toes, you feel like you’re paralyzed.

For the remainder of the night, you toss and turn and desperately will the pain away. If the scenario sounds familiar, then the chances are that you’ve experienced leg cramps at night. But the good news is you’re not alone.

According to American Family Physician, up to 60% of adults have experienced leg cramps at night. But what are they, and why do they happen? Here, we take a deeper look at the possible causes of nocturnal leg cramps and some treatment methods.

What are Leg Cramps?

What are Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps, also known as nocturnal leg cramps or Charley horses, are sharp and involuntary contractions.

These cramps primarily affect the calf muscles, but they can also affect any other part of your leg, including your hamstring, feet, and thighs. Though many experience leg cramps at night when they’re asleep, they may strike at any point during the day, particularly when you’re doing some form of physical activity, such as walking, running, or cycling.

Recognizing a leg cramp is easy. These contractions occur suddenly, and when it happens, you may feel like you have a knot in your muscle. The severity of the pain may range from mild discomfort to intense, immobilizing pain. Leg cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer. The best way to find some relief is by gently stretching the contracted muscle.

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What Causes Leg Cramps at Night?

Leg cramps can be classified into two branches, namely idiopathic leg cramps and secondary leg cramps.

Idiopathic Leg Cramps

The cause of idiopathic leg cramps is unknown, which means these painful contractions appear seemingly out of nowhere. However, there are a few theories about why they happen. These include:

  • Blood flow restriction - One theory is that idiopathic leg cramps occur when there’s a sudden restriction of blood flow to the muscles. This can cause oxygen depletion and lead to waste buildup.
  • Abnormal nerve activity - Unusual nerve activity during sleep or compressed nerves may cause unexpected leg cramps at night.
  • Excessive strain - Overexerting yourself at the gym can lead to muscle fatigue, especially if you don’t stretch enough.

Secondary Leg Cramps

Secondary Leg Cramps

Secondary leg cramps are usually caused by an identifiable source. Here are some triggers of nighttime leg cramps.

  • Dehydration - If you’re an athlete or exercise regularly, then you’re no stranger to experiencing leg cramps at night. When you exercise, your body releases sweat, which depletes your body of water and electrolytes. This can lead to leg cramps at night because fluid depletion causes the nerve endings to become more sensitive and trigger contractions.
  • Pregnancy - The risk of leg cramps is higher during pregnancy, particularly during the second and third trimesters, for a few different reasons. For starters, the weight gain can put some pressure on your leg muscles and nerves, leading to nighttime cramping. Another reason is that your blood circulation slows down during pregnancy, which can cause swelling or cramping in the legs. For some pregnant women, nocturnal leg cramps could also be a result of magnesium or calcium deficiency. If your leg cramps persist, consider consulting your doctor for advice about supplements.
  • Overexertion - Any time you overexert yourself with some form of physical activity, you’re bound to experience leg cramps at night. This is also why many fitness experts recommend taking rest days in between training sessions so that your muscles have sufficient time to recuperate. But in addition to aiding recovery, rest days can also prevent muscle fatigue and improve athletic performance.
  • Prolonged sitting - In the same way that vigorous-intensity exercise can put a strain on your muscle, so can prolonged periods of inactivity. But for many of us, prolonged sitting is a part of our daily routine. When we sit in one place all day, our leg muscles undeniably become weaker. However, our muscles are also forced to stay in one place for an extended period. Even if you work a desk job, try to take short breaks in between and move around so that your muscles aren’t constricted for too long.
  • Medications - Some medications have been known to cause leg and muscle cramps. Diuretics, which are used to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, deplete essential electrolytes, such as sodium, chlorine, and potassium, from the body. Low levels of these minerals can cause leg cramps at night. Other medications that may have the same side effect include beta-blockers, antipsychotics, and ACE inhibitors. If you have recently started taking a new medication and suspect it may be the culprit behind your muscle cramps, consult your doctor for advice.

How to Prevent and Manage Leg Cramps at Night

For many years, quinine sulfate pills were a popular treatment for leg cramps. But the pills also caused life-threatening side effects, which prompted the FDA to ban its over-the-counter use in 1994. Even today, the FDA warns against taking quinine in prescription form.

Since it’s often challenging to identify the exact cause of leg cramps, no definitive cure is available. But more often than not, leg cramps go away on their own. Here are some things you can try at home to ease the discomfort and prevent its onset.

Stretch it Out

Stretch it Out

In most cases, stretching can easily remedy a leg cramp. Since overexertion is typically one of the main causes of leg cramps, be sure to stretch before and after your workouts to reduce the risk of injury and cramping.

In case the cramps strike in the middle of the night, sit in an upright position. Then, extend both your legs, keep your back straight, and stretch forward to hug your arms around your toes and calves.

Stay Hydrated

Along with eating the right foods, it’s essential to drink plenty of water. Experts recommend drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, but if you’re not used to drinking that much water, you can also try smoothies, coconut water, or bone broth.

An unusual remedy for leg cramps at night is drinking pickle juice. One study showed that pickle juice reduced the painful effects of cramps. This is likely because of its high sodium content, which is effective at restoring electrolytes in the body.

Modify Your Diet

Unexplained leg cramps could also mean that your magnesium, potassium, and calcium levels are low. Eating a balanced diet and incorporating nutrient-dense foods could reduce the frequency of muscle cramps. Dark leafy greens, beans, bananas, whole grains, and nuts are all great sources of these essential vitamins.

Invest in the Right Mattress

Poor quality mattresses aren’t just uncomfortable to sleep on; they might also be the reason why you’re experiencing leg cramps at night.

To enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep, it’s important to invest in the most comfortable mattress. A memory foam and hybrid mattress both have pressure-relieving properties. Thanks to its contour-adapting capabilities, these mattresses allow for even weight distribution and provide optimal support for your muscles and joints.

There’s no denying that leg cramps are uncomfortable, but usually, they’re not a sign of a serious problem. To soothe your nighttime aches, it’s important to stretch your muscles regularly and strengthen them with exercise. If your cramps are unbearably painful or frequent enough to disrupt your normal routine, consider consulting a medical professional for treatment.

Your Turn...

Are you having leg cramps at night? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.

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