There’s nothing worse than waking up from a dead sleep with leg cramps or a charley horse: Your leg or calf seizes, and it feels like you’re powerless to relieve the involuntarily spasm.
So what are leg cramps, really? Well, the pain is actually triggered by the spasm and balling up of your muscles, which typically occurs in the calf, says Michael Jaffee, M.D., neurologist at the University of Florida Health.
“This can last from seconds to minutes, with an average of nine minutes, followed by several hours of soreness and possible discomfort for two to three days,” he says.
If you suffer from leg cramps, you’re not alone. About 60 percent of Americans report having nocturnal leg cramps, or those that flare up at night, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. So what causes them to happen in the first place? And is there anything you can do to avoid them? We’ve got the answers.
WHAT CAUSES LEG CRAMPS AT NIGHT?
For something so painful, you would think doctors and researchers would know what exactly is to blame for your leg cramps. Unfortunately, they have yet to find the root cause of leg cramps.
“The most common form of nocturnal leg cramps are considered idiopathic, meaning that there is no known cause,” says Dr. Jaffee.
But there have been lots of studies done to figure out the root. One of the most common causes is believed to be dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance (possibly due to exercise), but a 2010 study published in Sports Health found no correlation.
Instead, there might be structural or mechanical causes, like flat feet or circulation problems, says Christopher Hogrefe, M.D., an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Northwestern Medicine. There’s also been some link between leg cramps and prolonged sitting, or sitting in an awkward position—which might be messing with the circulation in your legs.
Plus, it’s also possible that your meds might be triggering leg cramps, too.
“Some medications, including diuretics, asthma medications, and statins for cholesterol have also been believed to cause them,” says Dr. Hogrefe.
Even how you’re walking around during the day might be to blame. For one, working on hard, concrete flooring could play a role, as some studies suggest, he says.
Finally, and more seriously, leg cramps may be linked to neurological disorders, including muscle disease (myopathies), nerve disease (neuropathies), motor neuron disease (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease, says Dr. Jaffee. Still, those
While the exact cause of leg cramps still isn’t known, experts do believe there is a rise in them during the summer as compared to the winter, he says. In fact, a 2015 study from the University of Alberta found that leg cramp symptoms doubled in the summer.
HOW TO STOP LEG CRAMPS
Experts don’t know what causes them, but there’s a little more info out there on how to stop leg cramps so you can feel better, faster.
“You should forcefully stretch the affected muscle. For calf spasm or charley horse, point the toes of the affected leg toward your head while keeping the knee extended,” says Dr. Jaffee.
Other measures for relief might include a change in temperature such as a hot shower or bath or an ice bath. And staying hydrated—with plenty of electrolytes—also may be key.
Sounds crazy, but pickle juice might be one of the best solutions out there. A 2010 study found that drinking pickle juice within 35 seconds of leg cramps starting reduced them 40 faster than drinking water did. This might be because pickle juice triggers a reflex in the region in your throat, reducing the neurons involved in cramping muscles, the researchers say.
HOW TO PREVENT LEG CRAMPS
Prevention can include daily stretching exercises of muscles in the back of your leg.
“Keep feet flat and legs straight and lean forward with arms extended upward with palms pushing against a wall,” says Dr. Jaffee.
Other preventive measures include staying well hydrated, riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime at an easy pace, and keeping the bed covers at the foot of bed loose.
There are a variety of medications used for people with recurrent cramps, including mineral and vitamin supplementation (B complex and vitamin E), Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and Gabapentin.
Bottom line: While the jury is still out on the exact cause of leg cramps, the best thing you can do to prevent them is stay hydrated and stretch. See your doctor if your cramps become more frequent and severe, as tests can be done to determine if it’s an underlying metabolic or neurological issue.
By Emily Shiffer