Here's why you get nocturnal leg cramps

If there’s anything less fun than a morning alarm, it’s being awakened in the middle of the night with a leg cramp — a muscle spasm that most commonly seizes up in your calf or foot but can also affect your thighs. While they can be excruciatingly painful during the several seconds or minutes they last, nocturnal leg cramps are usually not a cause for concern. They’re most common in those over 50, but young adults and children do get them too. They’re slightly more common in women, especially those who are pregnant.

Why do we get them?

The exact mechanism is unknown, but it’s thought that they’re caused by muscle fatigue or nerve dysfunction — which can be vexing when it comes to treatment. Other causes may include sitting for long stretches, or improperly; over exertion of the muscles; standing or working on concrete floors; or dehydration. Sudden restriction in the blood supply to the affected muscles can bring one on, too, and even our sleeping posture might contribute: People often sleep curled on their side, knees bent with feet pointed downward for many hours without movement, a position which may cause muscles to contract.

Another possibility, however, is the natural shortening of our tendons as we age. If those tough bands of connective tissue become too short, they can cause the muscles connected to them to seize up – a plausible explanation of why older people often report getting cramps.

Pregnant women often suffer through night cramps, and their cause may be the extra weight causing strain on leg muscles. Another theory suggests that it’s pressure from the expanding uterus on the blood vessels from the legs to the heart.

In what are called “secondary” leg cramps, precise triggers such as medication side-effects (from statins, beta agonists) or various medical conditions (alcoholism, Parkinson’s disease, neuromuscular disorders, endocrine disorders like diabetes) may be identified.

Okay. So there are a lot of causes. If I get one how can I make it go away?

There’s no one thing that will immediately stop the cramping as every person — and every cramp — is different. Here are a few things, however, to alleviate the pain:

  • Flexing or stretching the affected muscle (usually the best way to relieve the cramp)
  • Massaging the muscle with your hands
  • Walking around or jiggling the leg
  • Taking a hot shower or warm bath
  • Icing the effected area

How can I avoid them in the first place?

Take a look at your lifestyle and exercise patterns. Do you sit for hours throughout the day? Are you not stretching enough when you exercise? These may increase your chances of cramping.

In the meantime, a few simple changes could help: drink plenty of fluids (six to eight glasses of water) to avoid dehydration; stretch your legs and feet before bed; un-tuck the bed covers so there’s plenty of room for your feet and legs to move around.

Natural remedies recommended to prevent cramps include vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, and calcium if there’s an electrolyte imbalance. And even if there’s not, these supplements taken in daily doses are considered safe.

Is there any connection between the cramps and restless leg syndrome (RLS)?

No. While both happen at night, RLS doesn’t cause pain or cramping, but rather a crawling sensation underneath the skin that results in an urge to move your legs. The moment you stop the movement the discomfort returns. This isn’t the case with a cramp, where tightened muscles often need to be stretched out for relief.

However, if nocturnal leg cramps frequently interfere with your sleep, give your doc a call. He or she might be able to pinpoint a secondary cause that’s easily remedied.

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This article originally published by Van Winkle’s,, the editorial division of Casper Sleep