Leg cramps trigger discomfort or pain originating from one of the leg muscles. It is triggered by a muscle spasm which occurs once the muscle contracts forcefully. It typically occurs in the calf muscle, beneath and behind the knee. The small muscles of the feet can also be affected.
The leg cramps only last for a few seconds, but some can last for up to 10 minutes. Remember that the severity of the pain tends to vary. The muscle remains tender for up to 24 hours. Most cases occur when the individual is resting. It can be distressing if sleep is regularly disrupted by leg cramps.
Who are at risk?
Many individuals have leg cramps occasionally. Nevertheless, the cramps frequently occur in some individuals. It is quite common among the elderly.
Possible causes of leg cramps
In most cases of leg cramps, the cause is unknown. In one theory, the cramps occur once the muscle that is already in a shortened position is stirred to contract. Since the muscle is already shortened, contracting further can cause the muscle to spasm.
This typically occurs at night while in bed as the natural position while lying is with the knees slightly bent and the feet slightly pointed downwards. In this position, the calf muscle is shortened and susceptible to cramps.
In some instances, the leg cramps might be an indication of another health issue such as the following:
- Certain medications can trigger leg cramps as a side effect or cause them to occur more often such as statins, salbutamol, loop diuretics and lithium.
- Overexertion of the muscles
- Conditions that alter the balance of salt in the bloodstream
- Underactive thyroid gland that is left untreated
- Pregnancy (in the late stages)
- Intake of excessive alcohol
- Peripheral artery disease
Proper stretching and massage of the affected muscle can alleviate leg cramps. Most cases of cramps eventually settle.
Pain medications might not be useful since they do not work quickly. However, paracetamol can alleviate the muscle discomfort and tenderness that oftentimes last for up to 24 hours after the cramping has settled.
More Information / Disclaimer
The information posted on this page on leg cramps is for learning purposes only. Learn to recognize and manage muscle and ligament injuries including leg cramps by taking a standard first aid course with Mississauga First Aid.