What to Do for Leg Cramps

Painful and involuntary contractions occurring suddenly in a leg muscle is referred to as leg cramp. Leg cramps usually causes no harm and no reason is found in most of the cases. However, sometimes they may occur due to an underlying disease such as peripheral artery disease or diabetes mellitus. Elderly are more prone to develop leg cramps–approximately 33% of people older than 60 years and 50% of people older than 80 years experience leg cramps regularly. Leg cramps during night occur more frequently in pregnant women than to non-pregnant women.

What to Do for Leg Cramps

Usually leg cramps last for only a few seconds to a few minutes. However, in some rare cases, they may last up to 10 minutes. Sometimes the pain from leg cramp can be so severe that it wakes the patient from sleep and the muscles can be tender for the whole day afterwards. So, what can be done to soothe these annoying cramps?

1. Do Some Exercises

  • Flex and point your toes in the upward direction as soon a leg cramp occurs. Hold each position for around 2 seconds. Repeat the pose for 30 seconds to 60 seconds.
  • Walking around on heels leads to contraction and expansion of muscles, which can massage calf muscles, increase blood circulation, and thereby relieve leg cramp.
  • Stretch your cramped calf. To do this, put the affected leg behind the normal leg with a distance of around 1 foot between them and then bend the knee on your normal leg in front.
  • Stand by placing your feet hip width apart around 2-3 feet from a wall. Now put your hands shoulder-width apart on the wall. Lean forward and bend the elbows. This helps to stretch both calves. Hold this pose for 5 seconds and do it 5 minutes.
  • Massage the cramped muscle. Sit and place your cramped leg over the normal thigh and give it a massage. According to your preference, you can apply either deeper or firmer pressure.

2. Apply Heat

If the cramp persists, apply a warm compress to the area with a heating pad or a warm towel to increase blood circulation and relieve cramp. If the cramp persists even after 5 minutes, take a warm shower. This will help heat the muscle and may relieve the cramp.

3. Take Painkiller

What to do for leg cramps? Take painkillers may help. Though the pain may be reduced by taking painkillers, still they take some time to work and by that time most probably the cramp is gone. However, if a person has a severe leg cramp and persistence tender calf muscle persists, an over-the-counter painkiller may be of help.

4. Take Quinine

According to some studies, a number of people get some relief by taking quinine. However, there is no information regarding its long-term effectiveness and safety. Doctors may recommend quinine if the cramps are not relieved by stretching, if there are frequent attacks of leg cramps and/or if the person’s quality of life is compromised by the cramps.

The medicine has to be taken once at night before sleeping and the course of treatment lasts from 4-6 weeks. Quinine should not be taken by pregnant women, persons reacting to quinine, and persons suffering from hemolytic anemia, glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency and/or optic neuritis. Although side effects are rare due to the low dose, patients who are given quinine for leg cramps should still be monitored closely.

5. Try Magnesium

Magnesium relaxes your muscle through counteracting the muscle tightening effect of calcium, increases potassium absorption, which is critical for proper functioning of muscle, and decreases pain by blocking pain receptors in the nervous system and brain.

If you regularly suffer from leg cramps that are not related to any underlying disorder, you can try increasing your dietary magnesium. You can get abundant magnesium by consuming various seeds and nuts. Epsom salts, a form of magnesium, can be applied to the outside of the body. You can take a hot bath with Epsom salt, or you can wet a cloth in Epsom salt water and give your cramping legs a hot compress.

How to Prevent Future Leg Cramps

After discussing answer to the question what to do for leg cramps, let's discuss some preventive measures.

1. Regular Exercise

To decrease the risk of getting leg cramps, stretching your affected muscles thrice a day is beneficial. The stretching exercise that is done by standing in front of the wall is useful to prevent future leg cramps. Do one session of this exercise just before going to bed at night.

2. Drink Enough Water

Maintaining optimal hydration is another method to prevent future leg cramps. The pain from the present cramp may not be relieved immediately, but once you have drank water or a sports drink with electrolytes, another cramp may be prevented. You should aim to drink at least eight 8-oz glasses of water every day. Even more water intake (between 9-13 cups) is recommended by some experts.

3. Change Sleep Patterns

Try to loosen the sheets around your legs during sleep. If you prefer to sleep tucked in tight and nice, you may be inviting painful cramps, especially if you sleep on the back. You should keep the sheets around your legs and feet loose so that the feet are not pressed into a position that causes the tightening of calf muscles.

4. Other Methods to Try

What to do for leg cramps? There are another 3 preventive methods to take:

  • You should always wear shoes that have arch supports and foot beds with proper cushions. Calf muscles are prone to strain and cramp with improper footwear. You can find cushioned foot inserts at most drug stores.
  • While lying in bed on your back, you can use a pillow to keep your knees up. If you sleep lying on your stomach, your feet can be placed hanging over the bed.
  • If you have daily or nightly cramps, consult your healthcare provider about quinine, calcium, potassium or magnesium supplements. 
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