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Patient education: Nocturnal (nighttime) leg cramps (The Basics)

Patient education: Nocturnal (nighttime) leg cramps (The Basics)

What are nocturnal (nighttime) leg cramps? — Nighttime leg cramps cause pain and sudden muscle tightness in the legs, feet, or both. The cramps can wake you up from sleep. They can last for many minutes or just a few seconds.

Nighttime leg cramps are common in both adults and children. But as people get older, they are more likely to get them. About half of people older than 50 years get nighttime leg cramps.

What causes nighttime leg cramps? — Most nighttime leg cramps do not have a cause that doctors can find. When doctors do find causes, the causes can include:

Having a leg or foot structure that is different from normal – For example, having flat feet or a knee that bends in the wrong direction

Sitting in an awkward position or sitting too long in 1 position

Standing or walking a lot on concrete floors

Changes in your body's fluid balance – This can happen if you:

Take medicines called diuretics (also called "water pills")

Are on dialysis (a kind of treatment for kidney disease)

Sweat too much

Exercise

Having certain conditions – For example, Parkinson disease, diabetes, or low thyroid (also called hypothyroidism).

Being pregnant – Some pregnant people do not have enough of the mineral magnesium in their blood. This can cause leg cramps.

Taking certain medicines

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. Things you can try include:

Ride a stationary bike for a few minutes before bed – If you normally get little exercise, this might help.

Do stretching exercises (picture 1)

Wear shoes with firm support, especially at the back of your foot around your heel

Keep the bed covers loose at the foot of your bed and not tucked in

Drink plenty of water, especially if you take diuretics. (Do this only if your doctor or nurse has not told you to limit the amount of water you drink.)

Limit the amount of alcohol and caffeine you drink

Stay cool when you exercise, and don't exercising in very hot weather or hot rooms

If you get a cramp, slowly stretch the cramped muscle. To prevent more cramps, you can try:

Walk around or jiggle your leg or foot

Lie down with your legs and feet up

Take a hot shower with water spraying on the cramp for 5 minutes, or take a warm bath

Rub the cramp with ice wrapped in a towel

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — See a doctor or nurse if:

You wake up several times a night with leg cramps

Your cramps keep you from getting enough sleep

Your cramps are very painful

You have cramps in other parts of your body, such as your upper back or belly

Are there tests I should have? — Probably not. Your doctor or nurse will talk with you about your symptoms and do an exam to find out what could be causing your nighttime leg cramps. Depending on your symptoms and exam, you might also need some blood tests.

How are nighttime leg cramps treated? — Treatment is different for everyone. Most people have to try a few different things before they find a treatment that helps them.

Treatment options include:

Make lifestyle changes – For example, exercise differently, do stretching exercises, wear shoes with good support, and drink enough fluids

Take supplements – Supplements are pills, capsules, liquids, or tablets with minerals or vitamins your body needs. Tell your doctor or nurse about any minerals, vitamins, or herbal medicines you already take.

Stop any medicines you take that could cause cramps. But do not stop taking any medicine unless your doctor or nurse says it is OK.

Take medicines – Take prescription medicines that improve sleep, relax muscles, calm overactive nerves, or help in other ways. Doctors and nurses prescribe medicines for nocturnal leg cramps only when other types of treatment do not work.

What if my child gets nocturnal leg cramps? — Nocturnal leg cramps are common in children. Talk to your child's doctor or nurse if your child:

Has leg cramps often

Cannot sleep well because of leg cramps

Nocturnal leg cramps can run in families. Tell your doctor or nurse if someone else in your family also has nocturnal leg cramps.

More on this topic

Patient education: Restless legs syndrome (The Basics)
Patient education: Insomnia (The Basics)

Patient education: Insomnia (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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