1. Why Leg Cramps Occur
You’re just waking up in the morning. You roll over to stretch, and suddenly your calf muscle feels like it’s snapped and rolled up into a ball. For a few agonizing minutes, you experience the excruciating pain of a leg cramp. It’s not known exactly why these occur–researchers have long been frustrated by their inability to get legs to cramp on cue–but leg cramps are thought to be due to an imbalance in your body’s electrolytes, chemical compounds that help regulate fluids and assist with the transmission of nerve signals. If you’re pregnant, diabetic or using diuretics, you may be more prone to these painful cramps. They’re more common in older people or those who sit a lot. Poor nutrition or simply overusing your muscles may also lead to muscle cramps.
2. Stopping a Leg Cramp
Because a leg cramp usually sneaks up on you, there isn’t much you can do to stop one from occurring. You might, however, be able to shorten its duration by gently massaging or stretching the affected muscle. To stretch the calf muscle, straighten your leg and slowly bend your foot and toes up toward your chin. Walking or a cold pack might also help.
3. Preventing Leg Cramps
Even though the immediate cause of leg cramps isn’t always clear, a healthy diet and maintaining adequate hydration are good ways to prevent them. If you’re participating in sports or exercise programs, get some fluids into you before, during and after your workout. If your workout is a quick one, you can just drink water, but for longer-lasting activities, a good sports drink will replenish the minerals and salts needed to help keep your electrolytes in balance. And always be sure to have adequate potassium in your daily diet.
Recently, magnesium supplements have been touted as a nutritional supplement to prevent leg cramps, but research hasn’t yet supported their use. Vitamin E, vitamin B12 and calcium–which helps your body better absorb magnesium–are also recommended supplements, though research has so far only backed up the claim for the B vitamins.
Good stamina, while helpful in preventing leg cramps, takes time. Your training and exercise regimens need to be done regularly, but start easy and build from there.
4. When to See a Doctor
If you get persistent leg cramps or if you frequently have leg pain, you may need to make a trip to your doctor’s office. Leg cramps are not the same as restless leg syndrome, which also tends to occur mainly at night but has a different cause and a different treatment. Other types of leg pain may result from inflammatory conditions–such as shin splints–or blood or neurological disorders.