Definition of night leg cramps
Night leg cramps, also called nocturnal leg cramps, are painful, involuntary spasms, aching or contractions of muscles in your legs. In most cases, night leg cramps involve your calf muscles, but muscles in your feet or thighs may cramp as well.
Causes of night leg cramps
Most of the time, night leg cramps occur for no known reason, and they’re usually harmless. In general, night leg cramps are likely to be related to muscle fatigue and nerve problems.
The risk of having night leg cramps increases with age. Pregnant women also have a higher likelihood of experiencing night leg cramps.
In rare situations, night leg cramps can be associated with an underlying disorder, such as peripheral artery disease — in which narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to your limbs — diabetes or spinal stenosis.
Some drugs, particularly intravenous iron, estrogens and naproxen, have been linked to night leg cramps.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is sometimes confused with night leg cramps, but it’s a separate condition. In general, pain is not a main feature of RLS, but RLS could be the cause of night leg cramps.
Other conditions that may sometimes be associated with night leg cramps may include:
- Peripheral artery disease
- Spinal stenosis
Medications and procedures
- Blood pressure drugs
- Oral contraceptives
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins)
- Muscle fatigue
- Nerve damage, as from cancer treatments
- Parkinson’s disease
- Addison’s disease
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Hypothyroidism (a thyroid disorder)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Type 2 diabetes
When to see a doctor
For most people, night leg cramps are merely an annoyance — something that jerks you awake infrequently. But in some cases, you may need to see a doctor.
Seek immediate medical care if you:
- Experience severe and persistent cramping
- Have night leg cramps after being exposed to a toxin, such as lead
Schedule an office visit if you:
- Have trouble functioning during the day because leg cramps interrupt your sleep
- Develop muscle weakness and atrophy with leg cramps
Activities that might help prevent night leg cramps include:
- Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
- Stretching your leg muscles or riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before you go to bed
- Untucking the bed covers at the foot of your bed
Activities that might help relieve night leg cramps include:
- Flexing your foot up toward your head
- Massaging the cramped muscle with your hands or with ice
- Walking or jiggling the leg
- Taking a hot shower or warm bath
Although once widely used, the medication quinine is no longer recommended, as its effectiveness has not been demonstrated in carefully performed studies of people with night leg cramps.