What are nocturnal leg cramps?
Nocturnal (night) leg cramps ("charley horse") are cramps that
happen commonly during the night while you are sleeping or while
you are resting. However, in some people they may happen only
during and not significantly at night. The contractions, most often
in the calf muscles but also sometimes in the feet, come on
suddenly. The cramps are painful and may last up to ten minutes.
There might also be soreness after the cramp goes away. The
frequency of cramps generally seems to increase with age
(especially after 50 years of age), but they do occur in childhood
as well. Both men and women seem to be equally affected.
What causes nocturnal leg cramps?
No one really knows what causes these cramps, but some cases
have been linked with the following occurrences:
- Sitting for long periods of time
- Over-exertion of the muscles
- Standing or working on concrete floors
- Sitting improperly
More rarely, nocturnal leg cramps have been linked to certain
medications, or with certain conditions. These include:
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Parkinson's disease
- Endocrine disorders
- Contraceptive pills
Who gets nocturnal leg cramps?
Anyone can get these types of cramps. However, they tend to be
found more often in people who are middle-aged or older.
What can I do to help prevent these cramps from happening?
- Make sure that you stay hydrated--drink six to eight
glasses of water each day.
- Do stretches of your calf muscles before you go to sleep.
- Keep blankets and sheets loose around your feet so that toes
are not distorted.
- Wear appropriate shoes.
- Spend a few minutes riding a stationary bicycle before going to
What can I do to make nocturnal leg cramps go away if they
You might be able to relieve the cramp by walking around,
jiggling your leg, or stretching out the calf muscle. To stretch
the muscle, straighten your leg and pull your toes upward toward
the leg. You might also get some relief from a warm bath or shower,
or conversely, from applying ice and massaging the leg.
Are nocturnal leg cramps the same as restless leg
No. While both types of leg disturbances tend to happen at
night, or at rest, restless leg syndrome does not cause pain or
cramping. Restless leg syndrome is more of a discomfort, or a
crawling sensation, that results in a desire to move the legs. So
long as there is movement, the restlessness is relieved, only to
return when the person is still once more. This does not happen
with muscle cramps in which the "knotted" muscle needs to be
actively stretched out for relief.
Are there any medications that will treat nocturnal leg
In the past, quinine was used to treat leg cramps that happened
often or were severely painful. Quinine medications are currently
available by prescription only due to adverse side effects. Vitamin
E supplements or muscle relaxants might also be suggested.