Muscle cramps are caused by painful and involuntary contractions of a muscle or group of muscles. Nighttime or nocturnal cramps manifest as sudden muscle pain and stiffness in the legs, feet or both, while at rest. They can interfere with sleep. The cramps only last a few minutes, sometimes seconds.
The cause of nighttime leg cramps is often unknown. Certain factors however, may contribute to their onset:
- age - older people are more likely to experience cramping;
- electrolyte or fluid imbalances (may be caused by medication, dialysis, and excessive sweating, among others);
- certain seated positions or prolonged sitting;
- standing or walking for a prolonged period on a very hard surface such as concrete;
- a mineral or vitamin deficiency;
- certain diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease or peripheral vascular disease;
- certain medications.
Treatment and prevention
There are several techniques and treatments that are said to help relieve and prevent nighttime muscle cramps in the legs. There is little evidence however, to support their effectiveness. Here are a few measures to consider as an initial strategy to reduce nighttime leg cramps:
- have your regular medication reviewed;
- correct electrolyte imbalances, if necessary;
- stay hydrated, drink water regularly and avoid large amounts of alcohol or caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, cola);
- take certain vitamin and mineral supplementation or prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if this could help you;
- exercise regularly and stretch leg muscles regularly;
- keep bedding loose at the foot of the bed.
When nighttime muscle cramps occur, here is what you can do to relieve them and reduce recurrences:
- gently stretch the cramped muscle;
- walk or move the leg or foot;
- lie down with legs and feet elevated;
- apply hot or cold compresses;
- take a hot shower and let the water run over the cramped area for 5 minutes, or take a hot bath.
Do not hesitate to see your doctor if muscle cramps often wake you at night, if they prevent you from getting enough sleep, if they are very painful, or if they develop in other areas such as the upper back or stomach.