"What a Pain!" − Nocturnal Leg Cramps

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Donna Mae Scheib

"What a Pain!" − Nocturnal Leg Cramps

Posted by Donna Mae Scheib on August 14, 2019

“What a Pain!” − Nocturnal Leg Cramps

Nocturnal leg cramps can happen to any skeletal muscle of the human body, but they typically occur in the calf muscles (gastrocnemius), the front or back thigh area (hamstrings or quadriceps), or the feet and where any of the muscles cross two joints. These cramps can involve just part of a given muscle or all of the muscles in a particular group at one time.

The cramps are more common in individuals over the age of 50 as their bodies are generally less flexible and fit, and they tend to occur equally among men and women alike. This article addresses the following two key aspects of nocturnal leg cramps so the reader has a better understanding of this common ailment:

  • Characteristics of leg cramps
  • Some ways to prevent and treat nocturnal leg cramps

Characteristics of leg cramps

Nocturnal leg cramps are defined as pains that occur in your legs (thighs or feet) during nighttime most likely when you are still awake although inactive or when you are asleep and then the pain of the cramps causes you to wake up.

Medical experts attest to the fact that muscle fatigue seems to be the primary cause of leg cramps although the exact cause of muscle cramps is still unknown. However, research suggests that the chance to experience nocturnal leg cramps increases if the muscles are fatigued in hot weather or when the individual doesn’t stay as hydrated as they should.

The cramping happens because your muscle(s) suddenly contract and it is difficult for your body to control the affected muscle(s) which can feel quite tight or knotted.

Nocturnal leg cramps can typically last a few seconds up to several minutes or even longer in duration, however, muscle soreness has been known to last even longer after the cramp goes away. The pain associated with the cramping ranges from a slight twitching sensation or a short tic to more severe pain. The cramped muscles can often feel quite hard to your touch.

It is known that most nocturnal cramps go away on their own without treatment. The more serious and longer-lasting ones can actually be aided by physically stretching the affected area to help lengthen the shortened muscle and then, in turn, to help relax it. You can also try rubbing or massaging the targeted muscle to reduce the duration of the cramp and thus, the pain level. It is also not uncommon for these cramps to ease up slightly or disappear altogether before returning a few more times before going away completely.

It is always advisable to see a doctor if your muscle cramps occur more frequently, are severe in pain, last for long periods of time, and/or if you have any other concern.

Some ways to prevent and treat nocturnal cramps

Add more foods to your diet that are high in calcium, magnesium, and vitamins

  • The top calcium-dense foods include cheese, yogurt, milk, sardines, dark leafy greens (e.g., spinach, kale, turnips, and collard greens), fortified cereals, fortified orange juice, soybeans, fortified soymilk, and enriched bread/grains/waffles
  • Some high magnesium foods include nuts especially almonds and cashews, leafy greens (e.g., Swiss chard, spinach, kale), seeds, edamame, whole grains, fatty fish (e.g., tuna), legumes and soybeans, tofu, fruits (e.g., bananas, figs, dates, and avocadoes), yogurt, wild rice, flaxseed oil, and dark chocolate
  • Some important vitamins to add to your diet are Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Biotin, and Folic Acid
Consult a doctor before taking vitamin or mineral supplements

Consider adding some of these food sources high in the vitamins listed above to your daily diet

  • Vitamin A food sources: carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, dried fruits, bell peppers, and seafood
  • Vitamin B12 food sources: meats and dairy, including fish, poultry, liver, cheese, and yogurt; whole grains, legumes, dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds
  •  Vitamin C food sources: citrus fruits, including oranges, limes, and lemons; tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, red pepper, guava, kiwi, black currant, papaya, and strawberries
  • Vitamin D food sources: dairy products especially milk and cheese; fatty fish
  • Vitamin E food sources: avocados, vegetable oil, nuts, whole grains, egg yolks, mustard greens, kale, turnip greens, swiss chard, spinach, and seeds
  • Vitamin K food sources:  leafy greens like kale, spinach, collard, cabbage, mustard greens, broccoli, and turnip greens
  • Biotin food sources: soybeans, whole grains, egg yolks, organ meats, dairy, salmon, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms
  • Folic Acid food sources: seeds, legumes, liver, spinach, peas, romaine, and okra; folic acid is often added to refined grains and protein bars (read the ingredients on the box)

Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated

The general rule of thumb is for seniors to drink 8 cups of water each day

Before stretching, remember to warm up your body and muscles

Always make sure to stretch regularly before and after exercise

  • Calf muscle: stretch the calf muscle in a standing lunge having both feet pointed forward and then straighten the back leg; hold the position before switching legs
  • Hamstring muscle: sit with one leg folded in and the other leg straight out, have your foot pointed upright with the toes and angle relaxed, lean forward and touch the foot of the outstretched leg; hold the position before switching legs
  • Quadriceps muscle: stand up by holding the top of one foot with the opposite hand and then pull the heel of that foot toward your buttocks; hold the position before switching feet
  • Check with your doctor about several well-known and safe natural remedies to see if any of them are right for you:

    • taking magnesium supplements or rubbing magnesium oil on your muscles
    • drinking a ½ teaspoon of pink salt in a large cup of pure water on a daily basis
    • adding a ½ teaspoon of baking soda to a half glass of water and drinking on an empty stomach
    • using Epsom salt in a hot bath or foot soak to reduce muscle aches and twitching

As you age, be wary of exercises that rely heavily on the leg muscles such as hiking, biking, running, weight training (e.g., specifically your legs), standing and lifting for long periods of time, sports that require a lot of running like tennis, racquetball, basketball, and soccer; take necessary precautions if leg cramps occur

In summary

Most people of any age and especially the elderly population have experienced some form of nocturnal leg cramps. Knowing that this is a common ailment and also how to deal with the symptoms will undoubtedly reduce the stress, worry, and pain associated with the cramps. In addition, adding key foods to your daily diet that are rich in calcium, magnesium, and important vitamins along with drinking a sufficient amount of water and also proper stretching and warming up before exercise will all do their part to reduce the occurrences of leg cramps and the pain associated with them.

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