Leg Cramps

If you’ve had a charley horse, you probably know it wasn’t a comfortable ride. These spasms usually happen at night and affect your calf muscle.

The tight, knotted sensation you feel lasts several seconds to several minutes. Sometimes the pain lingers. If the cramp is severe, your muscle may be sore for days afterward.

Men and women are equally prone to leg cramps. While they can strike people of all ages, if you’re 50 or older you might get them more often.

As painful as they feel, leg cramps are harmless.

What Causes Leg Cramps?

Experts don’t know for sure, but it may be that your nerves sent the wrong signals to your muscles.

One theory: Your brain might mistakenly tell your leg to move while you dream. That confuses your calf muscles and causes them to contract incorrectly.

Whatever the cause, more likely to get a leg cramp if you:

  • Overwork your muscles.
  • Sit too long without moving.
  • Don’t drink enough water.
  • Stand too long on hard surfaces.

Other things can raise the likelihood of leg cramps, including:

Certain medications can also cause leg cramps. These include:

What to Do When You Get a Leg Cramp

Next time a leg cramp strikes, try any of these:

  • Stretch the muscle.
  • Stand on the cramped leg.
  • Massage the muscle.
  • Flex your foot.
  • Grab your toes and pull them toward you.
  • Ice the cramp.
  • Take a warm bath.

How to Prevent Leg Cramps

Here are some simple things you can do:

  • Stretch during the day and before bed. Focus on your calf and foot muscles.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Move around during the day to exercise your feet and legs.
  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes.
  • Sleep under loose covers, especially if you sleep on your back.

And that old advice about eating bananas for leg cramps? It’s true. The potassium helps. You might also add multivitamins with magnesium and zinc.

If you have frequent and severe leg cramps, talk to your doctor. You'll want to make sure there's not a health problem causing the cramps.

Your doctor might also prescribe medication. Drugs don't always work for leg cramps, and they can cause harmful side effects. The anti-malaria drug quinine, for example, was once used for leg cramps, but doctors and the FDA no longer recommend it -- side effects include severe bleeding.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 29, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

NYU Langone Medical Center: "Nocturnal Leg Cramps."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Nocturnal Leg Cramps."

Cleveland Clinic: "Nocturnal Leg Cramps."

Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine: "Leg Cramps at Night."

UC San Diego Health System: "Medicines Used to Treat COPD."

Lancaster General Health: "Leg Cramps, Nocturnal."

Mount Sinai Hospital: "Nocturnal Leg Cramps."

Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide: "Leg Cramps."

Allen, R. American Family Physician, August 2012.

Kolata, G. “A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp.” The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2008.

Maugh II, T. “The FDA warns against using quinine for leg cramps.” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2010.

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