8 Ways to Get Rid of Leg Cramps

If you've ever experienced a "Charley horse," then you know how severely debilitating they can be. The House Call Doctor explains what causes leg cramps, and how to treat them.

Sanaz Majd, MD,
Episode #166
how to get rid of leg cramps

Here’s a pop quiz: Besides restless leg syndrome (which I’ve covered in detail in previous episodes), can you name another medical issue that involves both a problem with the leg and insomnia

Answer: Leg Cramps.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night with a sudden, very severe cramp in the calf that just won't let go. Often referred to as a “Charley horse,” this pain can be so incapacitating that you may even cry out in pain--and awaken a partner sleeping next to you.  Although the cramp may last only minutes, it's enough to disturb your sleep--possibly for the remainder of the night. The next day, you awaken with a lingering pain that affects the rest of your day, as well. 

This is how people with a diagnosis of “nocturnal leg cramps” often describe their experience. And about 50% of adults have experienced this at one point or another. So let’s discuss leg cramps in today’s episode.

What Are Nocturnal Leg Cramps?

Cramps can come and go, here and there in the body. But for those with a diagnosis of “nocturnal leg cramps,” these are the common ways patients describe the signs and symptoms:

  1. They are involuntary (meaning you don’t have much control over them once they occur).
  2. They typically occur in the calf, but can occur anywhere from the thigh down to the foot.
  3. They appear suddenly.
  4. They are severe.
  5. They last for minutes.
  6. They occuring at night, often during sleep.

What Causes Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps are often “idiopathic,” which is a fancy term that simply means that there is no known cause for them in most patients. However, the following are possible causes of chronic leg cramps in a few select patients:

  1. Diabetes
  2. Dehydration
  3. Electrolyte imbalances (like phosphorous, potassium, sodium)
  4. Problems with the nerves (like in those with Parkinson’s or peripheral neuropathy)
  5. Muscle fatigue (as in those with high intensity workouts, or in those with a change in their exercise routine)
  6. Peripheral vascular disease
  7. Hemodialysis (for those with kidney failure)
  8. Spinal stenosis in the lower back
  9. Venous insufficiency (when the veins don’t pump the blood back up to the heart, due to leaky valves)
  10. Pregnancy
  11. Medication side effects (certain anti-inflammatories, inhalers, osteoporosis treatments, a few antidepressants, clonazepam, other sleep aids, chemotherapy, and diuretics)

It’s important to know if you suffer from any of these risk factors for leg cramps, because once the underlying cause is identified, then the cramps can be more easily treated.


About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD
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