Leg cramps are not usually due to a serious underlying medical condition, but they will certainly catch your attention. The sudden, painful tightening of a muscle may happen in your feet, calf or hamstring. They can be intense but will gradually fade away. Although these cramps can occur at any time of day, they are most common at night making sleep difficult. For some, especially older adults, these cramps may occur a few times per week, with a few cramps each night. The more frequent the cramps occur the more difficult it can be to get a peaceful night's rest. A lack of sleep can lead to other health problems, as well as affecting your general well-being. There are some medications that may decrease nighttime leg cramps but these medications are associated with some serious side effects. Studies have also shown that the medications benefits may be limited. The United States Food and Drug Administration has not approved any drugs for use in treating leg cramps. For these reasons, other nonmedicinal ways of preventing leg cramps are being studied.
Researchers from the Netherlands investigated the benefits of stretching before bedtime to reduce nighttime leg cramps. The trial, published in Journal of Physiotherapy, found that stretching was associated with decrease in frequency and severity of nighttime leg cramps.
The randomized trial included 80 adults aged over 55 years. All participants had reported nocturnal leg cramps at least once per week but were not taking medication for treatment. The participants were also otherwise healthy without medical conditions or injuries known to cause muscle spasms. They were divided into two groups. Half were shown how to perform hamstring and calf stretches in standing and sitting positions. They were asked to do these stretches every night before bed for six weeks. The second half were in a control group and did not make any changes to their normal routine. The number of leg cramps and severity of cramps were recorded by participants over six weeks.
Stretching was associated with 1.2 fewer leg cramps per night. Participants in stretching intervention also reported lower pain severity scores than those in control group.
A randomized trial is considered a reliable form of research. This trial followed preset rules and is considered a high quality trial which means its results are considered reliable. Still these results have some limits. For example the participants were all healthy older adults. Stretching may not be beneficial in people with leg cramps due to specific medical conditions or injuries. Also, an earlier trial was not able to find benefits of stretching. More trials may need to be done to clarify stretching benefits for people with nighttime leg cramps.
Medications are generally reserved as a last line treatment for leg cramps because their side effects can outweigh their benefits. Stretching on the other hand is not associated with harmful side effects. The stretching program used here was a brief routine that appeared to be well-adapted by participants. So, if you have leg cramps interfering with your sleep, some pre-sleep stretches may be a good option. If you have frequent leg cramps make sure to discuss them with your doctor. Some leg cramps are due to neurological or cardiovascular issues, or certain medications. Your doctor will work with you to address these medical issues but if you have leg cramps with no apparent cause, a quick stretch may help you get that long night's sleep.
Colorado Gerontological Society and Senior Answers and Services
Family Doctor - American Family Physicians
National Sleep Foundation
Hallegraeff J, Van der Schans CP, de Ruiter R, et al. Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial. Journal of Physiotherapy 2012(58)17.
Last reviewed June 2012 by Brian P. Randall, MD