nighttime leg cramps remedies

Nighttime leg cramps [Remedies]

Nighttime leg cramps are extremely annoying and very common in seniors. Seniors are not the only ones who suffer them though. I have good news though! Nighttime leg cramps can be cured with simple remedies in most cases!

I actually have first-hand experience with excruciating leg cramps that randomly woke me up for years. This was when I was in my teens or a young adult.

I couldn’t figure out a single cause for them at the time. This is likely because there probably isn’t a single cause, but a combination of several causes like I learned later on.

The fact that I couldn’t find a clear cause for the cramps made them even more annoying. Sometimes I had them several nights a week. Sometimes I got cramps randomly a few times a month. At times I had six months break without any clear reason.

The cramps were painful enough for me to start dreading sleeping. Would this be another night I wake up with my calf cramping with agonizing pain and pulling my foot straight?

The only thing that seems to help during an attack was to force my ankle into flexion, essentially stretching the cramped calf muscle.

My cramps were always on my calves but the same mechanism can cause cramps in the hamstrings and the small muscles of the feet apparently so you can try these remedies for them as well.

When I became old enough to drink alcohol I found a first clear connection. Whenever I had enough drinks to cause a hangover I multiplied the likelihood of waking up to a cramp.

This led me to do some research on the possible causes of the cramps that could be exacerbated by consuming alcohol. Let’s look at what I found out.

What causes nocturnal leg cramps?

So the hangover cramps were the clue that set me in the right direction. When you consume alcohol several reactions happen in your body due to the metabolism of ethanol and its metabolites as well as through the effects alcohol has on your central nervous system.

Without going into more depth the most notable side effect of consuming alcohol is dehydration. Dehydration itself is a known cause of muscle cramps.

It’s possible my cramps we’re caused by dehydration as I wasn’t really paying attention how much I was drinking water in those days. I suspected it wasn’t the only cause as I actually did always have a bottle of water next to my bed in case I felt thirsty at the bed.

The next clue is associated with dehydration. What do you do when you are dehydrated (or hungover)? You drink plenty of fluid, of course, most likely water.

Every time you drink large amounts of plain water (not mineral water), you dilute your system. Your muscle function is very tightly controlled by ions of salts, known as electrolytes. These include potassium (kalium in Europe), sodium (natrium) and magnesium.

If you don’t replenish the lost electrolytes due to dilution, your electrolyte levels can become too low. This is another known cause of muscle cramps. Especially magnesium.

Besides being hungover I wasn’t very physically active those days. I spent most of my days sitting either at class or in front of my computer or the TV.

It is speculated that one of the main reasons for nocturnal leg cramps, especially in seniors, is shortened and weak muscles.

When you spend most of your days being sedentary, your muscles become short and tight. Their circulation also becomes worse.

A short and tight muscle is very prone to cramping. Cramping essentially happens when a muscle is contracted beyond its tolerance. A strong and elastic muscle has a much higher tolerance for contraction before cramping.

The mechanism that triggers nocturnal leg cramps is likely something along these lines:

  1. You are either low on electrolytes, dehydrated or both.
  2. You have weak and tight muscles
  3. During sleep, you  get involuntary muscle contractions that are normally harmless
  4. Because of the electrolyte imbalances, a normal muscle twitch turns into a deep contraction
  5. The weak and tight muscle can handle the contraction and cramps
  6. You wake up screaming in agony as your own leg is trying to kill you

Now that we have a hypothesis for the mechanism, let’s look at how to remedy the problem!

I actually haven’t had a nocturnal leg cramp in years since incorporating the following remedies so I can vouch that they work for at least for myself and several people I have recommended them to.

Remedy 1: Hydrate

So if we look at our possible reasons, the first one is dehydration. Dehydration is a known cause of muscle cramps so it’s important to keep your muscles well-hydrated.

The trick is to drink enough water and other fluids while replenishing your electrolytes as well. I find the easiest way to do is to simply replace some of my tap water with mineral water that has especially magnesium and potassium in it.

Other than that the easiest way to make sure you get your minerals is to eat a healthy whole-food-based diet that includes fruits, whole wheat and sufficient amounts of salt in relation to your activity levels and climate.

The more you sweat, the more salt you need but there is no need to go overboard. Supplements can be used to make sure you get the critical electrolytes every day. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Remedy 2: Stretch

So the second cause for cramps, especially in the calf are shortened and tight muscles and tendons. When you don’t use your muscles enough in their full range of motion they become immobile.

The easiest way to improve your muscle mobility is by stretching. The calves and the hamstrings are very easy to stretch with the common calf and hamstring stretches most people already know.

You can also stretch the bottom of the feet by stretching your toes if you get cramps at the sole of your feet.

Besides stretching a fascia ball or a foam roller can be used to relieve tension and stretch the tissues to make the muscle more limber.

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I find a fascia ball is extremely useful and enjoyable for stretching and making the small muscles of the bottom of the feet mobile.

Remedy 3: Strengthen

Mobility is not enough to make your muscles more resistant to cramping. You also need to strengthen the muscles. This is because a strong muscle can hold a stronger contraction before cramping.

If you do any strength training or have done before, you will know this from trying new exercises. Especially calf raises and hamstring curls are notorious for making your muscles cramp when you do them the first time, even with minimal weight.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence these are the common muscles that cramp during the night. When you are inactive, they are simply not used to contracting in the full range of motion. And they are weak.

The best way to strengthen them is simply with strength training. For calves, there is no better exercise than calf raises and for the hamstrings the Romanian deadlift.

I recommend starting with a full-body beginner strength training program if you are new to this. This will gradually improve your strength and mobility while providing all the benefits of strength training like improved balance, posture, and healthier joints.

Remedy 4: Supplements

There are two supplements I have found useful for leg cramps. Magnesium and Creatine.

Magnesium

Magnesium deficiency is very common these days due to the industrialization of your food and the fact that the amounts of magnesium in the soil have reduced.

You aren’t likely getting enough magnesium in your diet unless you mainly eat seafood and whole wheat products so it’s wise to supplement with a high-quality magnesium product.

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Many people swear that they’re leg cramps have been cured with simply supplementing magnesium. I didn’t find this to be true in my case but I think it made the cramps less violent and less frequent.

Be careful with the dosing. though. Magnesium is notorious for causing diarrhea. On the other hand, this makes it a great laxative if you ever need one.

Creatine

Creatine is a sports supplement that essentially increases the amount of cellular energy stored within your muscle cells. Creatine will cause your muscle cells to store additional water as well.

The combination of increased energy stores and hydration increases the muscles’ work capacity but the added benefit is greater tolerance for cramping.

Creatine is a great supplement for seniors because it can improve your physical health but also improve your cognition. I think it’s one of the few supplements most people should be taking. Especially seniors.

I recommend getting a bulk creatine monohydrate supplement. Everything else is just marketing hype and not worth the extra price.

Conclusion

I hope you will find my remedies useful and that they will resolve your nocturnal leg cramps. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact me in the comments section below.

If you are afraid you will have a leg cramp tonight, do this now:

  1. Go buy a bottle of mineral water and drink it well before bed so you don’t have to wake to go to the bathroom
  2. Before going to bed, stretch your calves or other problem muscle for at least 10 minutes
  3. If you can get it straight away possible take some creatine
  4. Start a strength training program the first thing tomorrow

I hope this helps. Trust me, I know how annoying (that’s an understatement) nighttime leg cramps can be but if you follow these steps, I bet you will see an instant improvement!

If you found this post useful, please subscribe to my newsletter and bookmark my site. Social shares are always appreciated as well!

See you next time.

6 comments

  1. Hi Elder Strength,

    One of the ailments (if i can call it that way) I suffered from most in my teenage, young adult and adultyears are cramps.

    I’ve never found out why. Today, you have solved the mystery. That the shortening of the hamstrings cause cramps sounds very good to me, because that was always my case.

    Dehydration could have been another one as I drank very little water before. Now, I’m drinking a little more each day, except when it is very cold then I feel no need for water at all. The third cause, being sedentary is also true with me. I would spend hours at a stretch reading. Then when I became a teacher I would spend hours preparing lessons and grading sheets. So I guess my muscles became short and tight. Worse, I don’t exercise.

    Thanks for letting me know the cause of this situation which always makes me want to holler. Now I know what to do to overcome it.

    This is a useful post.

    1. Glad to hear the mystery is solved Akoli! You know what to do to get rid of the cramps. You don’t have to make it hard to simply get rid of cramps. Just get into a stretching routine of a few minutes every day, especially before bed. Get a kettlebell and do some Romanian deadlifts a few times per week. Drink at least three liters of water each day, part of it preferably bottled mineral water. Take the magnesium and creatine supplements every day. That literally takes a few minutes a day to accomplish, the trick is to make it into a habit and stick to it. Hope this helps!

  2. Hi, thank you so much for clearing all of that up. For years my father has suffered on and off with nighttime leg cramps but recently it has gotten a lot worse. After reading this quality article on the matter I started to look into things it could be.

    First thing is he is still pretty active and goes on long walks with his dog most days, so that’s not the problem.
    Then there’s the quality of diet – my mother feeds him a very healthy diet, after all he has to last forever lol.

    Then there is the Magnesium or rather lack of it – As it turns out, my fathers leg cramps got a whole lot worse when they moved house to be closer to us. Digging deeper and getting a water quality report from the water board revealed that there very little magnesium in the water compared to where he lived.

    I will now get him some of the magnesium pills you recommend above and fingers crossed this will help.

    Thanks again!

    1. Glad you found it useful Anthony! Aging can definitely make things worse even if there are no other changes to a your routines. This is because the loss of strength, mobility and muscle mass is inevitable, even though strength training can quite effectively reduce it.

      The first thing popped into my mind is that simply walking might not be enough. I actually suspect it might make things worse. While walking is an excellent form of low impact cardio that I recommend to all seniors (and everyone else) and something our bodies are designed to do, it doesn’t use the calf muscles in their full range of motion. This combined with long-lasting exertion can cause tension and tightness to build up in the calves. So add stretching and calf raises!

      I would be more surprised if he was getting enough magnesium from his diet and water supply than if he isn’t. I know the amounts of magnesium in tap water are minuscule in most parts of the world (I’m an environmental engineer by profession) as they should be. Having too much minerals in the tap water would be problematic both for the water network and for health. There are probably trace amounts but likely drinking tap water for magnesium will actually end up flushing more out of his body. That’s why I recommend bottled mineral water that has plenty of magnesium and potassium in it for hydration every now and then and the supplement to go along with it.

  3. OMG. I got my first leg cramp the other night. I woke my whole house up screaming; I thought I had broken something. My foot was pointed down like I was a ballerina, and it felt like I was fighting a rubber band trying to get it back into the flex position.

    These causes make sense to me. I am an avid coke drinker; I do not drink anything else. I am sure I am dehydrated. The fact that I went from a warehouse job to sitting behind a desk all day. I bet I am losing some muscle tone and mobility.

    I am going to try your nighttime leg cramps remedies tonight before I go to bed. Hopefully, they work, and I never have this issue again. I am going to bookmark your page, so I can keep coming back. Thank you for taking the time to write this post; if it works, it will be a lifesaver.

    1. Sorry for your leg cramp Dovey! I can definitely sympathize with the agony. I don’t think there’s a more horrible “not really serious” reason to wake up during the night. Drinking only coke is definitely not a good idea, but I guess you already know that, so I’m going to save you from the lecture.

      A desk job can definitely make things worse if you are not compensating with strength training or other forms of activities outside of work. It doesn’t really take much to improve the mobility and strength of your calves. Just do the stretches every night for a few minutes and do a few sets of calf raises three times a week and you’re good to go! Oh and ditch the coke and replace it with sparkling mineral water. Trust me, you’ll get used to it in a week. The caffeine in the coke might even make things worse if you are drinking it close to bedtime. All the best to you!

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