Leg Cramps

A muscle cramp or spasm is a strong, involuntary contraction of the muscle fibers. It occurs suddenly. It's also called a charley horse. This may occur in the foot, calf, or thigh at night when the legs are elevated. Muscle cramps can occur after exercise. If the spasm is prolonged, it can become very painful. This may be caused by sleeping in an uncomfortable position, muscle fatigue, poor muscle tone from lack of exercise and stretching, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, diabetes, alcohol use, and certain medicine.

Home care

  • Drink plenty of fluids during the day to prevent dehydration.

  • Stretch your legs before bedtime.

  • Eat a diet high in potassium. These foods include fresh fruit, such as bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. It also includes apple, prune, orange, grape and pineapple juices. Other foods high in potassium are white, red, and pinto beans, baked potatoes, raw spinach, cod, flounder, halibut, salmon, and scallops.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about taking mineral and vitamin supplements that contain magnesium and vitamin B-12 if you are not already taking these. Other prescription medicines may also be used.

  • Stay away from stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and decongestants.

How to relieve an acute leg cramp

  • For mild pain, getting out of the bed and walking may help. Some people find relief with heat and massage. You can apply heat with a warm shower, bath, or compress. Some people feel better with a cold packs. You can make an ice pack by filling a plastic bag that seals at the top with ice cubes and then wrapping it with a thin towel. Try both and use the method that feels best for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

  • For severe pain, stretching the muscle that is in spasm may quickly relieve the pain.

  • When the spasm is in your foot, your toes may curl up or down. To stretch the muscle in spasm, bend your toes in the opposite direction. If the spasm pulls your toes up, bend them down. If the spasm pulls them down, bend them up.

  • When the spasm is in your calf, bend the ankle so the foot points upward toward your knee.

  • When the spasm is in your thigh, bend or straighten the knee and hip until you feel relief.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Walking makes your pain worse and rest makes it better

  • You develop weakness in the affected leg

  • Pain or frequency of spasms increases and is not controlled by the above measures

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