Lonnie Goodman, 56, has suffered from severe leg cramps for most of his adult life. “I’ve gotten such painful and debilitating leg cramps that I could barely walk. I never know when those cramps are going to strike and when they hit me with vengeance, I just have to ride it out.” According to the retired Bay Shore, New York resident, “I’ve come to just accept the fact that leg cramps are just my cross to bear, unfortunately,” laments Lonnie.
Up to 60 percent of adults say they’ve experienced leg cramps at night, according to a 2012 study in American Family Physician. Many of us have experienced a leg cramp at one point or another, but according to researchers, they appear to be more common after age 50. While there is no real concrete evidence as to why leg cramps occur, there are several theories.
What are leg cramps?
As we become more seasoned adults, we might face the unwanted sudden and often painful involuntary contraction of muscles in our legs. When the contraction lasts for more than a few seconds it moves from being a muscle spasm to an outright cramp. Even though leg cramps are usually harmless, they can be extremely painful or even downright debilitating.
Cramps can strike the calf muscles but can also zero in on other parts of the leg(s), thighs, or feet. After the cramping has passed, you may have pain and tenderness in your leg(s) for several hours. Three out of four cases occur at night during sleep. Because they often happen during sleep when our legs are slightly bent and our feet are pointed downward, some have suggested this tightening triggers a spasm.
What causes leg cramps?
Leg cramps can appear out of the blue and their causes can include:
Muscle overuse (as in some form of exercise)
Meds (to treat ailments like high blood pressure, asthma, cholesterol, kidney disease, heart disease, depression, osteoporosis)
Bad sitting or kneeling positions
Liver, thyroid, or neurological issues
Lower back problems
Mineral deficiency (potassium, magnesium, calcium)
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS ( response to muscle fatigue)
Lastly, tendons naturally shorten over time as folks age, which may explain why seasoned people tend to get leg cramps. Tendons are tough bands of tissue that connect muscles to bone. If your tendons become too short, they may cause the muscles connected to them to cramp.
When to seek help
If leg cramps come on only occasionally then there is no cause for alarm. If, however, leg cramps are cramping your style frequently and causing you grief in your day-to-day existence, then it might be time to contact your doctor.
Coming into contact with poisonous material (such as mercury or lead) or cuts that develop into bacterial infections can also bring on leg cramps that require the immediate care of a physician.
Help for leg cramps
There are a few things leg cramp sufferers can do to alleviate painful episodes:
Stretching: If a leg cramp comes on during the night, and it typically does, try getting out of bed, standing up straight, then putting weight on the affected leg to push the heel down and stretch out the muscle.
Magnesium: Consider adding magnesium to your diet if the cramping is not related to a serious health issue. Foods that are rich in magnesium: dark chocolate, avocados, nuts especially cashews, legumes (lentils, black beans, peas, chickpeas, soybeans), tofu, whole grains, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, and halibut), bananas, leafy greens (spinach, kale; collards, turnips, and mustard greens) and okra.
Heat: Try applying a heating pad (not recommended for diabetics or folks with spinal cord injuries) to the affected area. A hot bathtub soak can also bring on relief. A handheld showerhead on a hot setting that you can comfortably bear and aimed at the painful area is also soothing.
Hydration: There’s some evidence that dehydration promotes nighttime cramping. Dehydration may also promote electrolyte imbalances in the blood, which could be one cramp trigger. Leg cramp sufferers should always stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and sports drinks containing electrolytes to prevent further flare-ups.
Movement: Walking around may help ease leg cramps by sending a signal to the muscle that it needs to relax after it contracts.
Massage: Getting regular massages to relax strained muscles can also help combat leg cramps.
Do home remedies work?
There are a few home remedy cures that some leg cramp sufferers swear by:
A bar of soap: “Sleeping with a bar of soap under a fitted sheet, as unusual as it sounds, may be effective,” says Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center neurologist Jessica Vensel Rundo, M.D., M.S. This is because some soap contains magnesium, which has muscle relaxant properties and may ease leg cramp symptoms.
Ice: Massaging the cramped muscle with an ice pack for just a few minutes may relieve pain.
Apple cider vinegar: Try mixing 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and a teaspoon of honey into a glass of warm water, then drinking the concoction to relieve nighttime leg cramps.
Yellow mustard: Yellow mustard is the only kind of mustard documented to relieve nighttime leg cramps. When nighttime leg cramps occur, take a teaspoon or two of yellow mustard. The mustard should take effect almost immediately, allowing you to easily get to sleep.
Pickle juice: Some folks have found that sipping pickle juice can get rid of muscle cramps quickly. It may be the sodium or the vinegar or some other unidentified ingredient in the juice that brings relief to leg cramp sufferers. There’s even some research to support this remedy. A study from 2010 found that muscle cramps could be resolved in 1.5 minutes by drinking 1.5 oz. of pickle juice for every 100 lb. of body weight. Also, the recovery was 45% faster after drinking the juice than after drinking no liquid at all.
Unfortunately, science has yet to come up with a magic pill that instantly puts an end to leg cramps. If the pain is being caused by an underlying medical problem, then addressing the issue with your doctor can certainly bring on relief.