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What to do for sudden leg cramps- Treatment and prevention ?

This article explains various techniques which can be adopted to relieve the pain and discomfort which occur during sudden leg cramps as well as measures to prevent occurrence of such painful muscle spasms in legs.


Leg cramps are also known as night cramps or Charley horses. They usually occur during the night time. They are severe in intensity and thus can wake a person in the middle of the night. Also seen to occur during day time in the middle of intense physical training or outdoor activities. These cramps can last from a few seconds to up to as long as 10 minutes in duration. Leg cramps are quite common and also completely harmless. Usually cramps are seen in calf muscles but can occur in any part of the leg like in foot or in thigh. Cramping is very sudden in onset and muscles become painful and tight. Even after cramping has passed, an individual experiences slight pain in leg which lasts for certain duration and also complains of tenderness.

Leg cramps

An onset of leg cramp is very sudden and those who suffer from it, find it almost impossible to use the affected muscle when cramping exists. Muscles experience two states. One is a relaxed state and the other one is state of contraction. Muscles consist of fibers. When these fibers present within muscles are elongated then muscle is said to be in a relaxed state. When muscle functions, calcium reaches cells present within muscle and at the same time, sodium is expelled out. This causes shortening of muscle fibers and at the same time muscle gets pulled. However, this is not abnormal cause this is how muscle functions.

Spasm or cramp occurs when muscle remains contracted. This will cause a sharp pain for a certain duration. It is an involuntary condition which causes forcible contraction of muscle which thereby prevents muscle from going into a relaxed state. Usually cramps occur in calves, hamstrings, thighs, feet, but also can just show up in any muscle of leg. One can easily feel a hard lump during leg cramp which is nothing but a contracted muscle. Sharp, intense pain which occurs during leg cramp lasts from a few seconds to 10 minutes. Mild pain, tenderness and difficulty in proper functioning of leg can be experienced by an individual as long as up to 24 hours after leg cramp episode. Mostly seen to occur during night time at rest. 3 out of 4 cases are of nocturnal leg cramps. Pregnant women, old age individuals, sports person are at high risk of suffering from leg cramps frequently. If intensity of pain is very severe then soreness can last for few days. Men and women both are equally affected.

What to do to bring relief in a leg cramp ?

  • A nocturnal leg cramp which occurs during sleeping is usually due to shortening caused in calf muscle. For correction, it is essential to cause elongation of the same and for this as soon as leg cramp occurs, flex toes for 2 seconds and then point them for 2 seconds. Repeatedly flexing and pointing toes for approximately a minute can bring some relief.
  • Massaging the cramped muscle brings tremendous relief during cramping. One can either massage over the cramped area very gently or can apply firm pressure.
  • Standing on heels and trying to walk slowly also brings some relief. Walking or jiggling naturally massage muscles of calves and thereby increased amount of blood and nutrients reach them. Walking makes muscles to expand and subsequently contract. Inadequate blood circulation causes cramping. Walking on tip of the toes also helps.
  • Stretching also brings a great relief during cramping. Stretching should be done in the opposite direction. Just point out the foot, knee or ankle in the opposite direction of cramp and stretch.
  • Stand 2 to 2.5 feet away from a wall. Keep knees as well as back straight. Stand with heels completely in touch with the floor. Place forearms against the wall and slightly lean in. This is a great stretching exercise to relieve cramping.
  • Some of us are not able to get up from bed as intensity of pain during leg cramp may be very severe. In such cases, it is better to keep legs as straight as possible. Pull the toes upside toward the head. This will greatly flex the ankle.
  • Apply a heating pad or hot soak with or without Epsom salts is of great help as heat relaxes the muscles and bring a great relief during cramping.
  • To stretch calf muscles, keep the leg straight and bend the ankle backwards. This will reduce cramp in calf muscle.
  • Drink enough water and if possible drink a glass of water with enough electrolytes. This may not have an immediate effect but will definitely prevent another muscle cramp, especially in individuals prone to suffering from multiple leg cramps in a single night.
  • Can also place a cold compress or an ice draped in a cloth over an affected area. This will also create a calming effect.
  • If leg cramp has occurred in a sitting position then keep the leg straight. Flex foot towards knee in upward position. Under ball of the affected foot, keep a rolled towel. Get hold of both the ends of towel. Try to pull the towel upwards, but it should be done gently because if done aggressively can aggravate the pain. While performing this, do not bend knee.
  • One simple technique to relieve sudden leg cramp would be to just grab the tow of the affected leg where cramping has occurred and gently pull it upwards.
  • If pain does not end then taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen will bring remarkable relief.
  • Place leg which is not cramping in front of the cramped leg. Keep a distance of about a foot in between them. Slightly bend knee of the leg which isn't cramping on the front. This will cause stretching of the cramped calf muscles.
  • If leg cramp still persist even after 10 minutes then take warm showers. Heat will cascade over cramped muscles which will relax the contraction and relieve the cramp.

Activities which can prevent leg cramps

  • Hydrate well. Drink adequate amount of water daily. This is the most important measure to prevent leg cramps.
  • Calf muscles should be relaxed during sleeping to prevent nocturnal cramps which usually occur during sleep. Sheets around the feet should be loose. If they are tightly wrapped then pressure gets exerted on calf muscles and there is always risk of cramping. Thus, sheets or blankets used must be loose around feet, especially if an individual is habituated to sleep on his back.
  • Exercise in moderate intensity. Calf muscles are usually affected by cramping. Exercise calf muscles on regular basis. Go for walking, jogging, cycling, perform yoga etc to exercise calf muscles. This will prevent leg cramps. On the other hand, performing too extreme exercises or exercises of severe intensity cause overload on muscles and induce cramping.
  • Never exercise on a full stomach. Keep a time table and leave sufficient time between meals and exercise.
  • Always stretch muscles of legs and the whole body before and after exercise. Stretching calf muscles before going to bed is particularly helpful to prevent nocturnal leg cramps.
  • After exercise session, do not forget to hydrate body with enough amount of fluid and essential minerals which get lost during workouts.
  • It is important to lose extra weight as excessive amount of weight exerts stress on leg. Follow a healthy diet and exercise regime to lose all those extra kilos which can cause cramping.
  • Wear foot wear of right size. See that they do not exert any stress on toes, fingers or other parts of the legs. Always choose the ones which are of right size and provide good comfort.
  • Heat therapy is very beneficial when it comes to preventing leg cramps. Soak feet in hot water. Add some Epsom salt to it or else just keep a heating pad on the leg and calves just before going to bed. Also, a hot water bath just before sleeping also proves to be very effective to prevent nocturnal leg cramps.

Medical care

Leg cramp is usually a harmless condition. However, if cramping occurs very frequently and the pain it causes is severe, unbearable and do not stop for a long time then medical attention is very much needed. Visit a doctor who will take a complete medical history and ask all sorts of cramping and pain related questions. Questions will be related to the intensity, duration of pain. location and whether sleep gets disturbed by pain etc. He will rule out other underlying causes. Sometimes accidental exposure to toxins take place which will induce leg cramps. In such cases immediately seek medial help. Also, visit a doctor as soon as possible if leg cramps are causing muscle weakness and atrophy or else interfering with daily functioning or sleep.


Leg cramping is a condition in which muscles of leg show sudden tightening. Calf muscle which is located at the back area of the lower part of leg usually undergoes cramping. Leg cramps can occur during a work out session, in outdoors while hiking, trekking or playing a sports and even during night time while sleeping. Main reason for leg cramps to develop is contraction of muscles in legs and this may be due to inadequate oxygen and blood supply, dehydration or an underlying disease or disorder. Know more about what causes leg cramps or Charlie horses as it is always important to diagnose the exact cause for leg cramps and treat it. Simple methods like massaging and stretching can immediately relieve leg cramps and if preventive measures are followed then one can totally save oneself from going through painful muscle spasms of leg leading to cramping.

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Author: Reena Upadhya14 Sep 2017 Member Level: Diamond   Points : 6

Some more preventive measures for leg cramps are-
-Follow a healthy lifestyle. Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and follow a well-balanced nutritious diet. Exercise regularly without exerting any excess stress on legs. Sleep for adequate hours. Reduce intake of alcohol and caffeine. Both of them are not good for health and cause mild dehydration. This increases risk of leg cramping.

-Increase intake of vitamins and minerals. At least 300 mg of magnesium is essential on daily basis and this can be obtained by increasing the amount of intake of lentils, nuts etc. A small dose of magnesium citrate before going to sleep can prevent risk of nocturnal leg cramps. Vitamin E is known to decrease occurrence of leg cramps. Also, calcium intake of 1 gm daily has proved to be effective in prevention of cramping. Daily take a multivitamin supplement. Increase potassium and zinc intake in diet. Eat bananas for potassium.

-Quinine is a popular drug which can reduce the frequency of leg cramps, but it comes with side effects and therefore should not be taken without the prescription. Tonic water contains quinine and thereby some people drink it to prevent leg cramps.

-Athletes and sports people before and after vigorous physical activity along with stretching should also perform some warm-up and cool down. They are the ones who are very commonly affected by leg cramps and to reduce the risk, proper training is essential.

-Leg cramps are very common during pregnancy. Adequate hydration along with supplements of calcium and magnesium prove to be effective in preventing them.

-Learn to avoid excessive exertion of tension on the muscles of legs. Activities which previously resulted in cramping should be noted and thereby possible causes and factors which cause cramping can be diagnosed. Avoiding the same can prevent future leg cramps. Take regular breaks from the activity and always remain in a comfortable position. Avoid heels if they are uncomfortable to walk into. Adjust chair position to comfort body. Always sleep on mattress and in position which is comfortable.

-Individuals suffering from leg cramps should always support their toes. When lying on back, place pillow below feet. If lying on stomach then allow lower extremities to hang over bed end. Go for outdoor cycling or ride a stationary bike regularly. This is the best exercise to stretch muscles of legs and to condition them.

Author: NK SHARMA15 Sep 2017 Member Level: Gold   Points : 2

The author has written on leg cramp but left the hand cramp/ finger cramp. Cramping also happen in hand's fingers when someone rides the scooter or motorcycle for long duration in the crowdy roads. I do not use motorcycle much but if i go sometimes long in city, my hand fingers get cramped. I have to stop and rub the fingers for 5-10 minutes to get normal.

Author: Natarajan25 Sep 2017 Member Level: Gold   Points : 6

Nice explanation of leg cramps and the home remedies for the same. It can be scary sometimes as if often starts in the night in many people. I agree with the good suggestions made. To add on

1.Many a times Vitamin D deficiency can be an underlying contribution factor and treatment depends on the Vit D3 levels.

2.Some people develop leg cramps that get better with resting the leg. If this occurs in smokers or people with hypercholesterolemia and coronary artery disease, then it would be worthwhile seeing your regular physician or a surgeon for further assessment. It is because leg cramps brought on by walking and exercise, relieved by taking rest indicates a reduction in blood flow to the leg arteries ( similar to people getting chest pain due to narrowing of the arteries to the heart). These patients need a check of the leg arteries to rule out narrowing.

3. Caution on over the counter medications: Common pain killers bought over the counter are mostly gastric irritants and affects kidney functions. Elderly people who are diabetics for many years can worsen their kidney function by taking these medications regularly without medical supervision. The other common medications given to relieve neurological pain often causes drowsiness and nausea some time. It maybe okay to take for a day or two but please consult your medical practitioner for long term use.

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