Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Nocturnal Leg Cramps

(Muscle Cramps; Nocturnal Muscles Cramps; Age-Related Cramps)

Definition

Nocturnal leg cramps are sudden contractions of the lower leg and foot muscles. They often awaken you from sleep. The calf muscles are most often involved.

The Calf Muscles
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Causes ^

The specific cause of nocturnal leg cramps is unknown. These cramps may be related to imbalances in local muscle chemistry. This can be related to problems with nerves, muscles, or blood supply.

Risk Factors ^

Nocturnal leg cramps are more common in people aged 50 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chances of nocturnal leg cramps:

Symptoms ^

The main symptom is sudden calf or foot cramps.

Diagnosis ^

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.

Treatment ^

Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. This may include treatment for any underlying causes of the nocturnal leg cramps.

If no specific cause can be found, treatment options include:

  • Stretching leg muscles when cramps occur
  • Standing on the affected leg and walking to help stop cramping
  • Massage, and hot or cold treatments to help the muscles relax

Medications

No medication has proven to treat nocturnal leg cramps. Quinine, while often effective for reducing the frequency and intensity of cramps, has a significant risk of major allergic reactions.

Other medications may be used in severe cases. These may include:

  • Muscle relaxants
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Anticonvulsants

Prevention ^

To help reduce your chances of nocturnal leg cramps:

  • Stretch during the day and just before going to bed
  • Exercise feet and legs regularly
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes
RESOURCES:

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
http://www.familydoctor.org

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://www.orthoinfo.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

The College of Family Physicians of Canada
http://www.cfpc.ca

Women's Health Matters
http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca

REFERENCES:

Allen RE, Kirby KA. Nocturnal leg cramps. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(4):350-355.

Butler JV, Mulkerrin EC, et al. Nocturnal leg cramps in older people. Postgrad Med J. 2002;78:596-598.

Garrison SR, et al. The effect of magnesium infusion on rest cramps: Randomized controlled trial. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2011;66(6):661-666.

Nocturnal leg cramps. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114870/Nocturnal-leg-cramps. Updated November 6, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2016.

2/11/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114870/Nocturnal-leg-cramps: El-Tawil S, Musa T, et al. Quinine for muscle cramps. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(12):CD005044.

Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 12/20/2014