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I suffer from night cramps and wonder if there is anything you could advise to help me with the crippling pain?

J McK.
Leg cramps are an involuntary contraction of a single muscle or a group of muscles in the leg. These are usually painful and extremely discomforting. Leg cramps often occur in elderly patients though age is no criteria as it is often seen in young people too. Leg cramps generally occur in the calf muscle, the hamstring and the quadriceps. The duration of a leg cramp ranges from less than a minute to several minutes at times.

Night leg cramps or nocturnal leg cramps are problematic because they can be excruciating when they strike. This could therefore leave you completely incapacitated and writhing in agony for the duration that the cramp lasts.

Cramps are characterized by sudden and abrupt appearances, with mild twitching sensations or an outburst of excruciating pain. Leg cramps are characterized by the following symptoms:

Severe leg pain, muscle tenderness, inability to move the leg for the duration the cramp lasts. The muscle in the affected area would most likely feel extremely tense and would be hard if touched.

The exact cause of a leg cramp is extremely difficult to pinpoint, some of the factors leading to the same are as follows -

- Muscle fatigue due to overexertion
- Rigorous exercises
- Dehydration
- Excess weight
- Electrolyte, hormonal or fluid imbalances
- Side effects of certain medicines such as diuretics

Other possible factors that could possibly aggravate or contribute to the occurrence include the excessive consumption of alcohol. In some cases it is possible that a lack of physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to the problem either directly or indirectly. When there is inadequate physical activity and one spends most of the day seated then the leg muscles and those in the calves and feet do not function as they should. This causes a stiffening of the muscles, which during relaxation in sleep may lead to twitching and consequent night leg cramps.

Based on the knowledge of triggers for nocturnal leg cramps, and also on the general statistics of population groups that are affected by the condition, it would be safe to say that the primary causes of night leg cramps are generally mineral or vitamin deficiencies. This would include calcium or potassium deficiencies, and dehydration. Here are some things you can do to help yourself:

• Drink plenty of fluids and oral re-hydration solutions as electrolyte loss and dehydration are the most common causes of muscle cramps. Drinking liquids like caffeinated drinks or alcoholic drinks does not constitute towards your fluid intake as these are diuretics and will actually have the opposite effect on your system.

• Make sure that you use appropriate footwear when walking that provide your feet with adequate support.

• Stretching your muscles gently with light exercise like riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before going to bed can help loosen up and strengthen the muscles. This would greatly limit the occurrence or severity of night leg cramps.

Dietary measures are also an important aspect of care and prevention of night leg cramps. Make sure that your diet is not restrictive, but instead should be well balanced with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. This should provide you with all the essential nutrients you need. Very often mineral deficiencies can aggravate the problem of night leg cramps.

• Lightly massage the cramped muscle with your hands using a soothing balm made from 3 drops of marjoram and 3 drops of basil oil in 2 teaspoons of almond oil.

• A hot shower or soak in a warm bath should also offer considerable relief.

• Multi-vitamin and mineral supplements may help as calcium, potassium, and magnesium deficiencies are often the cause for night leg cramps. Magnesium is a very good muscle relaxant.

• Try and consume fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole meal varieties of grains, not the refined varieties as the process generally destroys most of their nutritional value. Grains for that matter lose up to 85% of their magnesium when finely milled. Fruits like dates and bananas are rich sources of magnesium and potassium.

• While milk and dairy products like cheese are rich in calcium, their high phosphorus levels reduce their effectiveness as calcium replacement sources. It would be best to get the required dosage of calcium from supplements that do not contain phosphorus.

Here are some good dietary sources of essential minerals like potassium: Bananas, dates, grapes, apricots, and raisins; Pulses, cabbage and broccoli; Oranges, tomatoes and grapefruit, including their juice; Pork, lamb, and fish like tuna; Potatoes and corn.

Avoid using tight bed covers or restrictive sheets as this could cause an awkward pointing of the toes, which may lead to nocturnal leg cramps.

Make it a point to stretch the calf muscles with some light exercise for at least five minutes before going to bed each night.


What to do when you get a leg cramp?

Stretch the sore muscle, follow your instinct, your body will automatically guide you in the correct manner.

Massage the cramped muscle gently in the natural direction of the muscle. This helps relax the contraction and ease the pain.

A hot shower or warm bath is a good way to relax the muscle.

Use cold packs on the affected muscle. This relaxes the tensed muscles.

For a cramped calf muscle, stretch and massage the leg by straightening it and pointing the toes upward, towards the head.

Use a warm towel or heating pad to alleviate pain or tenderness following a cramp.

Increase water consumption to stay well hydrated throughout the day.

Potassium and calcium rich foods will keep the level of these two much required nutrients at optimum levels preventing cramping episodes.

Hope this helps to alleviate this painful condition.

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