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Posted on: February 14, 2019 at 4:23 pm

Waking up to sudden, painful muscle spasms in your leg isn’t only uncomfortable, the effects of interrupted sleep can often lead to feeling more stressed, having less energy, and not being at your best in general.

Explore the most common causes of nocturnal leg cramps (sudden painful muscle cramps that occur while sleeping or during inactive periods of the evening) and how to help prevent them in the future.

Are nocturnal leg cramps the same as restless leg syndrome?

No. Both conditions can disturb sleep, but they are not the same. Restless leg syndrome (or RLS) causes noticeable discomfort and restlessness that’s difficult to control. The sensation can be temporarily relieved by moving the legs.

Nocturnal leg cramps, on the other hand, cause painful sensations and muscle tightening that can’t be relieved by movement. (1)

Are nocturnal leg cramps the same as a Charley horse?

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Technically speaking, a Charley horse is a painful spasm of any muscle, though most people use the term to refer to calf muscles exclusively. Charley horses of the calf / nocturnal leg cramps can disturb sleep and cause muscle aches for some time after the spasm has left. (2)

Top 9 Causes of Nocturnal Leg Cramps

1. Over-exertion of muscles

People with active lifestyles can accidentally overuse the muscles in their legs and raise the risk of muscle spasms and leg cramps.

If you stay active by running, participating in sports, or practicing weight training, respect your body’s limitations, which can vary day-by-day. You should also consistently stretch after exercising and incorporate rest periods between workouts. (3)

2. Taking certain medications

Some prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs can raise the risk of nocturnal leg cramps. These include birth control pills, diuretics, naproxen, asthma medication, and statins. Talk to your doctor about potential alternatives if you’re suffering from repeated nocturnal leg cramps. (3)

3. Sedentary lifestyle

As a testament to the importance of keeping a healthy balance, sitting for long periods of time can also raise the risk of nocturnal leg cramps. (1) You should try to be moderately active in some way throughout the day, every day.

Check out these tips for cutting back on a sedentary lifestyle for some inspiration and ideas.

4. Strain on your posture

If your work requires you to stand on concrete floors for long periods of time or sit awkwardly at a desk, you may experience nocturnal leg cramps. Speak to a human resources representative to help find more ergonomic ways to work.

5. Hormone imbalances

Endocrine disorders such as diabetes and hypothyroidism have been linked to a higher risk of nocturnal leg cramps. Effectively managing your condition with long-term lifestyle changes and treatment plans from your medical care provider can help reduce the painful occurrences. (1)

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6. Pregnancy

Some pregnant women start to experience painful nocturnal leg cramps. Taking magnesium supplements, vitamin E, and/or B vitamins under the supervision of a medical care provider can help to provide relief. For some women, applying hot or cold compresses is enough to diminish more minor leg cramps. (1)

7. Circulation issues

Experiencing inadequate blood flow to a muscle can result in leg cramps or spasms. Dehydration can also raise the risk of muscle cramps. If keeping hydrated doesn’t seem to reduce nocturnal leg cramps, you should consult your doctor about your circulation and cardiovascular health in general. (4)

8. Being overweight

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of obesity is a higher risk of nocturnal leg cramps and muscle spasms in general. (4) Building healthy, sustainable habits including smart eating choices, consistent physical activity, and effectively managing stress can all help work towards maintaining a healthy weight and reducing health risks.

9. Compressed nerve

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Frequent muscle spasms could be the result of a pinched nerve. Your doctor may use an MRI scan to identify if nerve compression is at the root of your nocturnal leg cramps. (5)

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.

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Emese Graham
Health Expert
Emese believes women's health, mental health, and spiritual health really matter, so she jumps at the chance to bring those conversations to light. In her spare time, Emese enjoys finding challenging workout videos on Youtube (because gyms are hard for introverts), and she's all about getting creative in the kitchen and making recipes a little different every time - who needs measuring cups?

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