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When Should You Worry About Leg Cramps?

What causes those pesky cramps and when are they dangerous? The House Call Doctor is in.

By
Rob Lamberts, MD
June 12, 2013
Episode #063

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When Should You Worry About Leg Cramps?

Cramps can happen anywhere in the leg, but this article will focus on those leg cramps that happen in the calves. So wouldn’t that make them charlie calves? I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to ask Grammar Girl.  

What Is a Cramp?

A cramp is the tightening of a muscle into the contracted state. Muscles have two states: relaxed and contracted. A muscle is relaxed when all of the fibers within the muscle are elongated. When the muscle does its job, calcium goes into the muscle cells and sodium rushes out. Doing so causes the fibers to shorten and the muscle to pull--doing it’s work.

That is not a problem in the short term, when the muscle is doing what it’s supposed to do. But when a muscle stays contracted, a sharp and intense pain occurs. 

What Causes Cramps?

Why do cramps occur? One reason is a decreased supply of oxygen. If you’ve ever gotten a “stitch in the side” when exercising, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. When the work of the muscle outstrips the flow of blood and supply of oxygen, the muscles cramp up. That doesn’t happen under normal circumstances in the leg--even with significant exertion. But when the blood supply to the leg muscles is compromised, specifically from a build-up of cholesterol plaques in the arteries, the muscles will cramp. The cramping of the calves during exercise is something called claudication, which heralds the presence of peripheral artery disease, or PAD. I’ll talk more about this shortly.

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