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:
- You are either low on electrolytes, dehydrated or both.
- You have weak and tight muscles
- During sleep, you get involuntary muscle contractions that are normally harmless
- Because of the electrolyte imbalances, a normal muscle twitch turns into a deep contraction
- The weak and tight muscle can handle the contraction and cramps
- 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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:
- 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
- Before going to bed, stretch your calves or other problem muscle for at least 10 minutes
- If you can get it straight away possible take some creatine
- 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!
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See you next time.