How To End Those Nasty, Sleep-depriving Leg Cramps
Not only do they hurt, but because leg cramps often happen when you’re sleeping, they deprive you of the restorative powers of much needed sleep. Here’s how to end those nasty, sleep-depriving leg cramps.
I’m well into my second week of a fast paced journey through parts of Europe and am experiencing leg cramps in my calves with increasing frequency. Not only is the leg cramping painful, it also disturbs much needed rest, given that this happens mostly when I’m trying to sleep. Leg cramps, particularly in the calves, are a common experience, especially as we age, so let’s explore why this happens and what to do about it.
Symptoms of Muscle Cramps
This is easy. because there’s zero chance that you won’t notice muscle cramping when it happens. Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp, gripping pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin, says the Mayo Clinic.
To put it mildly, last night was not restful for me, as I had to jump out of bed four times to limp around and work out cramping, typically in my right calf for some reason. I’m already worn out from all the walking in 90 degree Fahrenheit heat (32 Celsius) that I’ve been doing as I trek through the Balkans, so I need my sleep.
Truly motivated to figure out how to end these calf cramps, I did some research that I want to share with you, because for many of us, the older we get, the more often muscle cramps happen, Balkan trekking or not.
Why You Get Muscle Cramps
Sometimes it seems like the cramping happens for no reason. You’re laying down, perhaps trying to sleep, and suddenly that vise-like cramp grabs your calf muscle and you get religious: “Oh my God, don’t let it seize up, relax, relax…”, inevitably followed by leaping from the bed to hobble around and work out the cramps.
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn’t known.
Although typically harmless, three possible related medical conditions cited by the Mayo Clinic are:
- Inadequate blood supply. Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you’re exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising.
- Nerve compression. Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position — such as you would use when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you — may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
- Mineral depletion. Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Diuretics — medications often prescribed for high blood pressure — also can deplete these minerals.
There’s also an increased risk for muscle cramps that correlates with:
- Age. Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get over-stressed more easily.
- Dehydration. Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
- Pregnancy. Muscle cramps also are common during pregnancy.
- Medical conditions. You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.
How To Prevent Muscle Cramps
This is a big part, I think, of why I’ve been getting leg cramps. A lot of walking under a hot sun without sufficient hydration. The obvious solution is to drink plenty of water throughout the day, both before, during and after whatever physical exertion you’re doing.
Drink enough that you have to urinate several times during the day. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. During activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and — importantly, as I said — continue drinking water or other fluids after you’re finished.
Stretch your muscles
Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you’re sleeping.
Consume Electrolytic Minerals
Livestrong.com reviews suggestions offered by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons about sustaining enough electrolytic minerals in your body to prevent muscle cramps. Most often the deficiency is in potassium or magnesium, or both.
Perhaps your diet is not rich enough in these minerals for physical activity or the physical activity itself is the cause. A combination of increasing body temperature, sweat and dehydration can cause you to become depleted of electrolytes during exercise.
To avoid dehydration:
- Increase you water intake before, during and after exercise.
- Take magnesium: adult women need 310 to 320 mg, and adult men need 400 to 420 mg. Good food sources are soy, yogurt, spinach, black beans and avocado.
- Take potassium: 4,700 mg per day for both genders is sufficient. Good food sources are milk (if tolerated), potatoes, fish, bananas, lima beans and melon.
In my case, I’ll be drinking more water during the rest of my European journey and will be taking a magnesium and potassium supplement.