Leg cramps, also known as charley horse, are a widespread and generally harmless condition wherein your leg muscles suddenly become rigid and painful. It usually affects your calf muscles, although it can occur in any part of your leg, including your thighs and feet. After the cramping has passed, you may have pain and tenderness in your leg for several hours. About three-fourth of the cases occur at night while the person is asleep.
Adults over the age of 60 and pregnant women (during the last trimester of pregnancy) are largely affected by this condition. However, people of all ages have reported having leg cramps. Men are equally affected as women.
What causes leg cramps?
Leg cramps can either be idiopathic leg cramps (crop up for no evident reason), or can occur as a symptom or complication of a health condition, called as secondary leg cramps.
Secondary leg cramps can be a cause of factors including pregnancy, exercise, certain medications, such as statins (medications that help reduce cholesterol levels) and, liver disease.
What are the symptoms of leg cramps?
Leg cramps are associated with a sudden contraction (shortening) in muscles, causing pain in your leg. This is known as a spasm, and you cannot control the affected muscle. Symptoms of a muscle cramp include pain and firmness or tenderness in the affected muscle. The cramp may last from a few seconds to 10 minutes and after the spasm has passed, you can again control the affected muscle.
Myths and facts of leg cramps
Although leg cramp is a very simple condition, there is a lot of confusion and wrong information passed about the same. Take a look at some of the more common myths about leg cramps and why they’ve persisted for years.
MYTH 1: Stay well hydrated to prevent muscle cramps
When your body perspires or sweats, it loses fluid and sodium thereby, altering the electrolyte balance in your body. It’s a widespread myth that this recoverable loss from sweating after an intense workout elevates your risk of cramps.
MYTH 2: Eat a banana to treat muscle cramps
As a matter of fact, one medium-sized banana delivers 12 percent of the recommended daily value of potassium which is important for maintaining electrolyte balance in your body. However, to show its action banana takes about 30 to 60 minutes after eating two servings. And for anyone in the throes of a painful muscle cramp, such delays take far too long.
MYTH 3: Pickle juice replaces lost sodium to relieve cramps
Although some athletes find it drinking pickle juice effective in alleviating cramp pain, this doesn’t attribute to it’s salt or fluid content.
Treatment for leg cramps
In most of the cases, leg cramps can be alleviated by exercising the affected muscles. Exercising your legs during the day will often help in reducing your number of cramping episodes.
Stretches: Stretch your calf muscles by standing with the front half of your feet on a step and, with your heels hanging off the edge. Slowly lower your heels so that they are below the level of the step. Hold for a few seconds before lifting your heels back up to the starting position. Repeat a number of times.
The need for anti cramp medicines usually arise only in the most persistent cases where cramping does not alleviate with exercise and other simple measures. Secondary leg cramps call for treating the underlying cause to help relieve your symptoms. If you have leg cramps during pregnancy, they should pass after the baby is born. Treating cramps that occur as a result of serious liver disease is complicated and difficult.
Over-the counter medications such as muscle relaxants, anti cramp tablets and analgesic balm or a patch can provide further relief. Other medications, such a Pamprin and Midol (used for menstrual cramps), can be effective in treating bad leg cramps too.
You may also be able to prevent or alleviate muscle cramps in your legs by making simple lifestyle changes. Drink plenty of water, since water is essential to curb dehydration which has a major role to play in cramps. A healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can also help to decrease the frequency of leg cramps.
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS (Vitamins & Minerals)
Additionally, certain vitamins and minerals impact muscle function, particularly potassium and magnesium. It is evident that increasing your magnesium intake can help with the frequency of night time leg cramps, especially for pregnant women. A daily recommended dose of magnesium is 300 milligrams. You can reach your daily allowance by taking supplements along with eating magnesium rich foods, such as lentils, nuts, and quinoa.
Preventing leg cramps
If you often get leg cramps, regularly stretching the muscles in your lower legs may help prevent the cramps or reduce their frequency.
You might find it useful to stretch your calves before you go to bed each night (see stretching advice above or try this post-exercise calf stretch).
The following night-time advice may also help:
• If you lie on your back, make sure that your toes point upwards –placing a pillow on its side at the end of your bed, with the soles of your feet propped up against it may help keep your feet in the right position.
• If you lie on your front, hang your feet over the end of the bed – this will keep your feet in a relaxed position and help stop the muscles in your calves from contracting and tensing.
• Keep your sheets and blankets loose.