One of the things that I seemed to have inherited from my mom was a tendency to have bad foot and leg cramps in the middle of the night. For several years, I found myself regularly waking up with my foot and leg muscles clenched, making it impossible to find any comfort. If I was lucky, I would wake up soon enough to feel the beginning of the cramp start in my toes, thus enabling me to work on it before it became a full-fledged rock-solid, muscle-burning cramp that took over the whole extremity. However, in the past few years, my night leg cramps have seemed to come around less often and they’re less severe.
So what are these muscle cramps? How can you limit them? And what do you do if you have a leg cramp?
"A muscle cramp is a sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle," wrote Dr. Jonathan Cluett on About.com. "Leg cramps occur when the muscle suddenly and forcefully contracts." These cramps may last several minutes until the contraction subsides. According to Cluett, leg cramps can be caused by muscle fatigue, heavy exercising, dehydration, high weight, electrolyte imbalances, and medications. The Mayo Clinic staff also noted that night leg cramps, while often harmless, may be associated with Addison’s disease, alcoholism, blood pressure medications, cirrhosis, diarrhea, diuretics, flatfeet, gastric bypass surgery, hypothyroidism, chronic kidney failure, oral contraceptives, Parkinson’s disease, second trimester pregnancy, and peripheral artery disease. The Mayo Clinic staff reported that the risk of night leg cramps increases with age. In addition, pregnant women may be more likely to experience night cramps.
Diet can make a difference in how often you experience night-time leg cramps. For instance, one change that I made about 10 years ago was to stop primarily drinking diet sodas and opting instead for water. Turns out that in a recent Houston Chronicle column, "The You Docs," Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen encourage people to drink between six to eight glasses of fluid a day, although they don’t specify what kind of fluids one should drink. By doing a quick Google search, I found a 2008 blog by Jennifer Heisler, R.N., on about.com that notes, "According to some recent studies, calcium is the common denominator between leg cramps, cola drinks, bone loss and the subsequent need for surgery after a brittle bone breaks." Heisler reports that leg cramps is one of the first signs that you’re not getting enough calcium. Heisler as well as Oz and Roizen recommend getting more calcium from food, drinks and supplements. Cluett recommends drinking at least three full glasses of water daily, including one right before bedtime. He also recommends drinking plenty of fluid before, during and after exercising.
Roizen and Oz also recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables daily to also get key minerals such as potassium and magnesium. The National Institutes of Health report that green vegetables such as spinach are good sources of magnesium, as are some legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole, unrefined grains. Tap water also can be a source of magnesium, but the amount can vary according the water supply. MedlinePlus (a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health) notes that good sources of potassium include red meat, chicken, fish, soy products, veggie burgers, broccoli, peas, lima beans, tomatoes, potatoes (especially the skins), sweet potatoes, winter squashes, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, kiwi, prunes, apricots, milk, yogurt, and nuts.
What else can you do? Oz and Roizen recommend regularly stretching calves and toes. And Cluett recommends building up an exercise program gradually. "The ‘10% Rule’ is a good rule of thumb: never increase your exercise over one week by more than 10% compared to the week before. Sudden changes in activities can cause leg cramps." The Mayo Clinic staff suggests wearing shoes that have proper support and untucking the bed covers at the foot of the bed. In addition, you may want to ride a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before going to bed.
If you do get a muscle cramp, Cruett recommends massaging the cramped muscle, then gently stretching the muscle. He also recommends taking a hot shower or bath to help the muscle warm and relax. The Mayor Clinic staff suggest flexing the foot up toward your head. Walking or jiggling the leg also may help. Our family has found two other methods Mom also found that eating salt during a cramp would help limit its duration and severity. And I’ve found that elevating my leg right as the cramp starts seems to help limit its duration.
Leg and foot cramps can be a very uncomfortable part of life, especially when you wake up suddenly due to the pain. Knowing how to prevent cramps through diet and exercise choices is a good way to make it easier to get a good night’s sleep without the leg and foot cramps.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.