According to the NHS, a third of people over the age of 60 experience leg cramps, with about 40 per cent having three or more episodes of leg cramps each week. A third or so of pregnant women also suffer leg cramps, usually during the last three months of their pregnancy.
However thankfully, while leg cramps may be painful, they aren’t usually harmful.
You know when you’ve had a leg cramp: your muscles suddenly go into spasm, contracting, feeling tight, knotted and hard. The sensation can last anything from a few seconds to a few minutes, though your muscles may feel sore for a while afterwards.
Most people have leg cramps during the night while they’re in bed (three out of four cases are thought to occur at night during sleep, says the NHS). There’s often no obvious cause (also known as idiopathic leg cramps), but sometimes leg cramps can be associated with the following:
Doing a lot of exercise can also cause leg cramps, as can certain medicines such as those used to treat high cholesterol, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and angina, as well as the oral contraceptive pill.
Few people are prescribed medicines for leg cramps, only those who have severe and frequent cramps. A medicine called quinine – which was originally used to treat malaria – may help, but it isn’t prescribed very often. This is partly because it has several possible unpleasant side effects such as tinnitus (ringing, buzzing or other noises in your ears/head), nausea, hot flushes and headache; and partly because it can very rarely cause a potentially life-threatening and blindness-causing complication called thombocytopenia.
If, however, you take regular medication, it’s worth checking with your GP whether or not it may cause leg cramps. If it does, your GP may alter your dosage or suggest an alternative.
Over-the-counter painkillers may help if your leg feels painful following an episode of leg cramps.
If you get a cramp in a leg muscle, stretch the muscle straight away and rub it gently. If you’re in bed, get up and put your weight on your leg – you could try walking around, for instance (try walking on your heels for a calf muscle cramp, as this stretches the calf muscle).
Try the following stretches, depending on which muscle is affected:
Sit up and straighten your leg in front of you, then try to pull the top of your foot towards your head.
Stand up and hold on to the back of a chair, bend the affected leg at the knee, grabbing the ankle behind you. Try to pull your foot up towards your buttock.
If your leg is still feeling sore or tense, apply a warm towel or heat pad to the affected muscle, followed by an ice or cold pack. You could also try taking an over-the-counter painkiller if your leg still feels painful.
Meanwhile, there are a few things you can do to help prevent getting leg cramps too:
Exercise that helps stretch your leg muscles – such as certain yoga or Pilates stretches – can help to reduce your risk of getting cramps at night. Also try stretching your calf, hamstring and quadriceps muscles for about five minutes in total, three times a day.
This exercise stretches your calf and hamstring muscles: while standing, place one foot on a step or stool that’s a little lower than hip height. Flex your foot back towards your torso, and feel the stretch in your calf muscle. Then bend forward slightly, placing you hands on your outstretched leg to feel the stretch in your hamstring muscle.
To stretch your quadriceps, lie on your side with one hand propping up your head and both legs straight, one on top of the other. Lift the top leg slightly, then bend it at the knee and use your other hand to grab the ankle behind you. Bend the bottom knee slightly if you need to feel more stable. Hold for up to 30 seconds and feel the stretch at the front of the thigh.
Keeping your feet in the right position when you’re in bed may also help. If you lie on your back, keep your toes pointing up by placing your feet up against a small pillow at the bottom of the bed. If you lie on your front, hanging your feet over the end of the bed has the same effect. Either way, the muscles in your feet will be more relaxed, which may stop you getting cramp in your calf muscles.
If you suffer from RLS or leg cramps, there are a few natural supplements that may provide some relief of your symptoms.
Magnesium: There’s some evidence that taking magnesium supplements may be helpful for RLS and PLM symptoms (i), with one study suggesting symptoms may improve after taking magnesium for four to six weeks (ii). As it’s necessary for muscle relaxation, it may also help with leg cramps, with one study suggesting magnesium supplements may help reduce leg cramps in pregnancy (iii).
Fish oils: The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils may also help to improve leg health in general, including boosting circulation, and may be particularly beneficial for people who don’t regularly eat oily fish.
B vitamins: Several of the B vitamins are needed for muscle and nerve function, and folic acid is sometimes also recommended for RLS, as there’s some evidence it may help to reduce the symptoms (iv). Researchers have also suggested vitamin B12 may help relieve the symptoms of RLS (v), while others have found that vitamin B complex supplements may help to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of night-time leg cramps in older people with high blood pressure (vi).
(i) Hornyak M, Voderholzer U, Hohagen F, et al. Magnesium therapy for periodic leg movements-related insomnia and restless legs syndrome: An open pilot study. Sleep. 1998;21:501-505. Popoviciu L, Asgian B, Delast-Popoviciu D, et al. Clinical, EEG, electromyographic and polysomnographic studies in restless legs syndrome caused by magnesium deficiency. Rom J Neurol Psychiatry. 1993;31:55-61.
(ii) Hornyak M, Voderholzer U, Hohagen F, et al. Magnesium therapy for periodic leg movements-related insomnia and restless legs syndrome: An open pilot study. Sleep. 1998;21:501-505.
(iii) Dahle LO, Berg G, Hammar M, et al. The effect of oral magnesium substitution on pregnancy-induced leg cramps. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1995;173:175-180.
(iv) Botez MI. Folate deficiency and neurological disorders in adults. Med Hypotheses. 1976;2:135-140.
(v) O’Keeffe ST. Restless legs syndrome: a review. Arch Intern Med. 1996;156:243-248. Silber MH. Restless legs syndrome. Mayo Clin Proc. 1997;72:261-264.
(vi) Chan P, Huang TY et al. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the safety and efficacy of vitamin B complex in the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps in elderly patients with hypertension. J ClinPharmacol. 1998 Dec;38(12):1151-4.