A leg cramp is a pain that comes from a muscle in the leg. It is due to a muscle spasm which is when a muscle contracts too hard. It usually occurs in one of the calf muscles, below and behind a knee, but painful spasms can occur in the ankles, shins, and the quads (the big muscles of the thigh). The small muscles of the feet are sometimes affected, usually starting with curling your toes toward your heel. These steps may help alleviate this painful condition.
Part 1 Cramps and your health status
1. Think about your general condition. Do you have a medical condition, such as fibromyalgia or neuropathy which may make you more prone to cramps? Are you taking any medications? Some can cause cramps, or make them worse.
2. Be sure you are being treated properly for any condition you may have. Nocturnal leg cramps become more frequent as one ages, but they can also be precipitated by a host of conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and fibromyalgia. Getting the proper treatment and medications for these can alleviate some of the tendency to have spasms.
3. Tell your doctor about your cramps. Look over any prescriptions you are taking together. Some medication may be causing the leg cramps, or making them recur more often. Alternative medicines may be available. Also, if you have other symptoms apart from cramps, see your doctor who may examine you or do some checks to rule out a secondary cause for the cramps.
4. Talk to your doctor about muscle relaxants. There are many prescription drugs that are available, which help relax tense muscles and keep them from going into painful spasms. Be aware that some cause dependency, and ask your doctor how to avoid becoming hooked.
Part 2 Stretching and positioning
1. Try stretching exercises. Stretching exercises are commonly advised. Some doctors swear by these exercises to relieve nocturnal cramps, others aren’t sold. Either way, stretching will not hurt you, so if you try them and find they help you, that’s a good thing. Stretch your hamstrings, inner thigh muscles, and quadriceps, but stretch gently and don’t overdo. There are lots of instructions with pictures available on the internet for each exercise.
2. Position your legs properly. This is strongly advised. Positions which prevent the calf muscle from shortening when you are asleep may help. The following are not proven treatments (from research studies), but some experts believe that they help to prevent cramps.
- Positioning your feet is helpful. If you can “trap” your toes against your sheets, it can keep your foot from turning down and allowing your calf muscles to seize.
3. Walk. If you do get a cramp, stand up and walk around. This loosens the muscle in your leg, thus relieving the cramp.
Part 3 Warmth
1. Stay warm. Cold muscles are much more likely to cramp. Even if it is a warm night, as you sleep, you become more sensitive to cool drafts. A light sheet will help reflect some of your body heat back to you, and warm muscles are much less likely to cramp.
- In winter, use a covered hot water bottle to place near the area of your legs that cramps most often.
- Try a warm shower if mid-cramp. It might help ease the pain.
- Very hot water can get rid of cramps if you stay in it for a while. Your cramps will be less likely come back. Just be sure to use water that is hot but not burning.
Part 4 Diet and supplements
1. Ensure your diet is supported through good nutrition. Prefer foods rich in magnesium, potassium and sodium.
2. Take potassium, calcium and/or magnesium supplements after getting your doctor’s advice. These supplements are available at most pharmacies or health food stores. Be careful not to take too much; ask your doctor what the right amount is for you, as well as the right form (for example, magnesium citrate versus magnesium gluconate). Deficiency of any of these minerals can cause leg cramps.
Do not use quinine. Serious safety concerns, including fatalities, associated with quinine are well-documented. Quinine can cause tinnitus, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, visual changes, and auditory deficits. There is also evidence that quinine causes serious cardiac arrhythmias. Serious adverse reactions associated with quinine use also include severe skin reactions, thrombocytopenia (a decrease in blood platelets that can cause hemorrhage or clotting problems) and other serious hematological events, permanent visual and hearing disturbances, hypoglycemia, kidney failure and generalized anaphylaxis.
- If you sense an imminent cramp, try putting your shoes on before you go to sleep. It sounds weird, and you will wake up with sore heels because of the unfamiliar pressure. Still, your shoes will keep your toes from curling under, which is often the way a spasm starts – as the muscles on the bottom of your feet contract, your foot turns down, which in turn causes the muscles on your calf to shorten, resulting in a painful Charley Horse. Wearing your shoes is not cozy and comfy, but it’s better than a leg cramp.
- Rub in cream such as emu oil, Pain Away or Dencorub. Keep active the following morning by exercising the muscles.
- Other medicines and supplements have been suggested as possible treatments for leg cramps. These include: Quellitall, naftidrofuryl, vitamin E, verapamil, diltiazem, methocarbamol, Flexeril, painkillers, aspirin, orphenadrine, magnesium, calcium, and sodium chloride. TENS machines have also been suggested as a possible treatment.Some of these treatments work better than others. Your doctor can help you decide if one is right for you.
- Don’t worry if you have leg cramps. They are painful and can leave you sore for days, but usually they aren’t damaging in any major way. They hurt but it’s not like a heart attack.
- The moment you feel a leg cramp, stretch both arms up while still in the lying position for one minute. You will feel the pain is slipping away slowly as blood is flowing into your legs.
- Don’t overexert yourself. Little to no activity will cause you to have cramps if you’re prone to them, but too much activity can trigger them, too. Keep exercise gentle and moderate – not too much, not too little.
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