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What Causes Severe Leg Cramps While Sleeping?
By Cindi Pearce, eHow Contributor
Low potassium is just one cause of nighttime leg cramps.
Nighttime leg cramps are defined as sudden, painful, involuntary contractions of the muscles of your legs during the night. Typically, nighttime leg cramps have no real cause and are simply a painful nuisance. There are times when these cramps may be associated with other conditions or disorders that may need treatment. If you are concerned about your nighttime leg cramping, consult your health care provider.
Nighttime leg cramps can be caused by unopposed foot flexion while in bed, according to the National Medical Society. When people sleep, the muscles of their feet and calves are shortened and become vulnerable to nocturnal leg cramping. The cramp generally occurs in the calf, and the calf muscle may visibly harden. Sometimes the cramp is caused by a voluntary contraction. You can have nighttime leg cramps in context with heavy sweating from prolonged exertion, hemodialysis or hypoglycemia. If you are taking calcium channel blockers, this can cause nocturnal leg cramps.
Peripheral Artery Disease
According to the National Institutes of Health, peripheral arterial disease can cause leg cramping. PAD happens when plaque builds up in the arteries. Arteries carry blood throughout the body and problems result if they get clogged. Plaque consists of calcium, fibrous tissues, fat, cholesterol and other substances found in the blood. When plaque builds up in your arteries, it creates a condition called atherosclerosis and the arteries become narrower and harden, which disallows the free flow of oxygen-rich blood to parts of your body.
Diuretics and Leg Cramping
If you take water pills, or diuretics, this can deplete your body of potassium. Diuretics help the body get rid of excess water and salt (sodium), and in so doing the kidneys put more sodium into the urine. Sodium absorbs water from the blood and this diminishes the levels of fluid in the blood vessels. This, in turn, takes some of the pressure off the walls of the arteries, which is good for individuals with certain conditions. However, the bad part is that these pills wreak havoc on potassium levels. Low levels of potassium can cause leg cramping.
Addison's Disease & Parkinson's Disease
Addison's disease, which is caused by a malfunctioning of the adrenal gland that may have occurred due to a hemorrhage, can cause nighttime leg cramps, according to MedicineNet.com. Individuals suffering from Parkinson's disease frequently suffer from leg cramps, the Mayo Clinic says.
Overextension and Other Factors
According to Dr. Bhupinder K of the AskMedicalDoctor website, overextension of the leg during the day can cause nighttime leg cramps. If you are overweight or dehydrated, engaged in long periods of standing over the course of the day or have high or low sodium levels in your body, this can cause cramping. Drinking too much alcohol and liver disease can cause leg cramps. Nerve compression can also be the culprit.
If you are a diabetic, you may experience leg cramps while sleeping as well as in the daytime. If you take insulin, this can lower your potassium levels, which, in turn, can provoke leg cramps. Diabetics tend to have magnesium and sodium deficiencies as well, which can cause leg cramps, according to the Diabetes Information Library.
Women who are pregnant, especially in the second and third trimesters, often experience nocturnal leg cramps. This is due to the pressure of the uterus on the veins that return blood from your lower extremeties to the heart.
How to Eliminate Leg Cramps at Night
Edited by J black, Sondra C, Tom Viren, MrsB and 19 others
Four Methods:Verified Methods for Relieving Leg Cramps at NightHome Remedies for Relieving Leg Cramps at NightStretches for Relieving CrampsDrugs that May be Causing Leg Cramps
Night leg cramps can attack anyone during the course of the night. Although pregnant women and the elderly may be particularly susceptible, leg cramps can present for any number of reasons. Here is a host of tricks and information you can use in order to keep leg cramps from keeping you up at night.
Method 1 of 4: Verified Methods for Relieving Leg Cramps at Night
Consider drinking tonic water with quinine. Tonic water containing quinine has been shown to help people suffering from nighttime leg cramps. On the other hand, the FDA has just advised against using larger doses of quinine, found in the drug Qualaquin, to treat muscle cramps. 1997 Cohrane Review of published and unpublished trials on the quanine trials have concluded that although improvement was seen in the patients taking the drug compared to those taking pacebo, the side effects, tinnitus in particular, was also more often associated with the group taking quanine. The authors have concluded: "owing to the side‐effect profile of quinine, non‐pharmacologic therapy such as passive muscle stretching is the best first‐line treatment, though the use of quinine is warranted if this therapy is ineffective. Prescribing physicians should closely monitor the risks and benefits in individual patients.".
Apply a hot compress to the extremity. A hot water bottle or electric heating pad could relax and loosen up the muscle, easing the cramps. Just be sure not to fall asleep with an electric heating pad on if you choose to use one. •If you both have a heating pad, try massaging a generous amount of VapoRub into the cramp area. Eventually, the cooling effect should kick in and relieve the cramp.
Get potassium into your system. It's possible that a potassium deficiency could lead to nighttime cramps in your extremities (usually your legs). If you're not getting enough potassium, consider eating more sources of potassium, listed below, or begin to take potassium supplements with meals. Good natural sources of potassium include: •Fruits like bananas, nectarines, dates, apricots, raisins or grapes.
•The cabbage or broccoli family of vegetables.
•Oranges and grapefruit.
•Saltwater fish, pork, and lamb.
For pregnant women, try taking magnesium supplements. Younger pregnant women are more likely to benefit from magnesium supplementation, which is critical to normal bodily function. Unfortunately, for older or non-nursing adults, studies show that magnesium supplements are far less conclusive.
Drink plenty of water and avoid dehydration. Nighttime cramps can sometimes be a result of not drinking enough water. Make sure that you're drinking enough H2O during the course of the day in order to prevent cramps during the night. •How much water are you supposed to drink during the course of the day? According to the Mayo Clinic, females should aim to drink about 2.2 liters a day, while males should aim to drink about 3 liters of water a day.
•How can you easily tell whether you've had enough water to drink? Look at the transparency of your urine. Clear urine signals adequate hydration, while yellowish urine signals less adequate hydration.
•Steer clear of alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption robs the body of water, making the possibility for cramping that much worse. Cutting back on alcohol consumption is great for your overall health as well.
Try taking calcium channel blockers. Calcium channel blockers keep calcium from entering various cells and blood vessel walls in the body. Though they are primarily used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help with nighttime muscle cramps. See your doctor for a prescription and specific dosage information.
Stay away from tight bedsheets. Tight bedsheets or covers can cause you to unconsciously point your toes downward while sleeping. This movement can trigger calf cramps. Stick with looser bedsheets to minimize the chance of toe-pointing; pull your toes back toward your body if a calf cramp suddenly sets in.
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Stretch your calf muscles before retiring. Stretching your calves before retiring to bed at night can help ease muscle tension. See section below for specific calf muscle exercises to try.
Method 2 of 4: Home Remedies for Relieving Leg Cramps at Night
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Put an ordinary motel sized bar of soap under the part of your leg which has the cramp. Alternatively, apply hypo-allergenic liquid soap directly to the center of the cramp. Wait a few seconds and your cramp should be gone or almost gone! •Why does soap soothe nighttime cramps? Although it does not seem to work in all cases, soap placed on the calf possibly allows a molecule to diffuse out of the soap gel and provide lasting relief. It may be that the acting molecule is capable of diffusing in air, or it may require direct contact with the affected area.
Try drinking cow's milk. The theory here is that milk can help shuffle out an imbalance of calcium, thereby helping with nocturnal muscle cramps. On the other hand, milk contains high amounts of phosphorous, which may make the cramps even worse. Try this home remedy for yourself and see if it works; many people swear by it.
Try primrose oil. Primrose oil is used for a wide range of treatable conditions, ranging from acne and eczema to high cholesterol and heart disease. It's possible that primrose oil can help with leg pain and leg cramps caused by blocked blood vessels, although insufficient evidence so far exists. Take 3 to 4 grams before bed.
Try brewer's yeast. Brewer's yeast may improve circulation in the legs by supplying additional B vitamins. It is recommended by some doctors, but clinical trials have not yet produced verifiable results. Try taking one tablespoon of brewer's yeast per day.
Take both valerian and skullcap as relaxing herbs. Skullcap is an anxiety and insomnia treatment, mostly taken in combination with valerian, which is another sedative. Although clinical trials have linked skullcap to liver damage, it's usually only when used in combination with other botanicals. •Follow the label directions when taking valerian and skullcap, or make tinctures out of both. Note that valerian has a distinct odor that may find unpleasant and may take some time getting used to.
Method 3 of 4: Stretches for Relieving Cramps
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Stretch your calf out using a towel. Set your leg on a towel or bed sheet stretched horizontally out. Fold it in half hamburger style, so it encloses the part of your leg which has the cramp. Grab the open end and hug it as a child would hug a security blanket. This stretch works by compressing the leg and effectively massaging it.
Stretch your inner calf. In a sitting position, stretch one leg out and another leg (the calf you want to stretch) bent, so that the knee approaches your chest. Take hold of the bottom of the toe from the bent leg and pull it toward your body as much as you can.
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Stretch out your leg with the aid of a wall. Lie down on the side where the thigh does not have the cramp, and face the wall. Extend the leg that has the cramp so that it is perpendicular to the rest of the body, and so that it is fully straight and touches the wall. Hold for 10-20 seconds before bringing your leg back, to stretch the muscle in the back of the thigh.
Stretch your Achilles tendon, which attaches the heel to your calf. In a sitting position, stretch one leg out and another leg bent. Bring the heel of the bent leg close to your buttocks. Keep your heel on the ground but lift your toe up, holding until the stretch loosens up your muscle.
Method 4 of 4: Drugs that May be Causing Leg Cramps
Watch out for short-acting loop diuretics. Short-acting loop diuretics help get rid of excess water in the body, sending it to the bladder and turning it into urine. You can probably guess why these kinds of medications may spell trouble for people suffering from cramps. Cramps are sometimes caused by dehydration. If you take one of these and experience leg cramps at night, talk to your doctor about adopting long-acting loop diuretic, or other possible solutions.
Watch out for thiazide diuretics. Thiazide diuretics, like short-acting loop diuretics, deplete key electrolytes in the body, paving the way for possible cramping. Thiazide diuretics are used for high blood pressure and heart failure, among other conditions. •Another class of hypertension drug, called beta-blockers, can also cause muscle cramping. Beta-blockers curb the adrenaline hormone, thereby slowing the heart rate. Although scientists aren't completely clear on why they cause leg cramps, they believe it may have to do with the constriction of arteries.
Know that statins and fibrates may also cause leg cramps. Used to combat high cholesterol, statins and fibrates may interfere with muscle growth, causing a decrease in muscle energy. Ask your doctor whether it's prudent to sub statins and fibrates for vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6.
Be on the lookout for ACE-inhibitors. ACE-inhibitors are hypertension drugs that curb angiotensin II, a hormone that causes arteries to constrict. ACE-inhibitors can sometimes cause an electrolyte imbalance of potassium, leading to muscle cramps.
See if antipsychotics aren't causing leg cramps. Schizophrenia, bipolar, and other conditions may warrant the use of drugs that treat depression, hallucination, and agitation. This class of drugs, which includes Abilify, Thorazine, and Risperdal, can induce fatigue, lethargy and weakness, sometimes resulting in leg cramps. Talk with your doctor if you believe that you may be experiencing leg cramps as a result of antipsychotics.