Leg cramps may represent a true inconvenience but also a serious health problem. Although they seem insignificant comparing to more serious diseases, leg cramps can represent a great difficulty. Leg cramps phenomena is still not researched and understood that well, but there are some factors which are believed to be influencing these conditions. Some of those include muscle fatigue, dehydration, high weight (not linked with obesity), imbalanced electrolyte levels, certain therapies and medications etc. By far the most common reason is connected with physical exercises and prolonged muscle straining. In most cases, leg cramps occur during resting periods, especially during night when body gets relaxed.
The prevalence of frequent leg cramps is statistically reserved for older population. Around 30% of people over 60 and about 50% of people over 80 years experience leg cramps regularly, multiple times per week or even per day. About 40% of all people who get leg cramps have them more than 3 times per week. Leg cramps during pregnancy are very common and represent almost a standard occurrence.
What Are Leg Cramps
Leg cramps or so called Charley horses are actually a spontaneous painful tightening of a single or a group of muscles. It can last longer or shorter, but it happens without the influence of will. A duration period can go from few seconds to several minutes and it may affect one or both legs, sometimes the small muscles of the feet as well. Cramping can occur either at intervals or simultaneously. After leg cramps subside, muscles may remain soft up to 24 hours but person can continue to feel pain caused by leg cramps during the period of several days.
There are four main types of muscle cramps – true cramps, dystonic cramps, contractual and tetany, with the first one being the most common type of leg cramps. True leg cramps occur when part or a complete single muscle or group of muscles becomes suddenly active. There’s a prevalent opinion in the scientific circles that true cramps occur when nerves stimulating the muscles get hyperactive. Nerve hyper excitability can however, be caused by a number of different reasons. One of the more serious leg cramps happened to one of the best tennis players today, Rafael Nadal, at the 2011 US Open press conference.
What Causes Leg Cramps
There are many causes of leg cramps, but the basic one, which is medically established and proven, is decreased concentration of electrolytes in the blood, notably magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium. The decreased concentration of electrolytes is caused, among other things, by loss of bodily fluids, sweating, and the therapeutic use of diuretics, which contributes to the emergence of sudden pain and cramps in one’s legs.
Other most common causes of leg cramps are:
- Nerves abnormalities
- Varicose veins
- Hormonal imbalance in the body
- Muscle fatigue
- Poor blood circulation
- Side effects of certain drugs
Majority of people, particularly sportsmen who exercise on daily basis, during their lifetime, suffer at least once from intolerable pain in the calf area while exercising longer than usual. There are several different reasons why this problem called cramp occurs in sportsmen: not enough warm-ups prior to exercising; awkward or less comfortable position; wearing unmanageable shoes. It is not a symptom of disease, but a state of one or group of muscles. But the spasm itself may imply a disease.
When it comes to varicose veins, because of the impaired venous valves, leg is not able to use the returning blood from the periphery to the heart properly and this causes deadlock. Insufficient amount of oxygen gets to the muscles and this causes nerve endings irritation because of the waste that has been accumulated and this altogether causes cramping in legs. Specific diseases can also cause leg cramping.
Muscle over-exertion as a result of heavy exercising and training often triggers true leg cramps. This is either because the body is not accustomed to increased physical activity, or the person is taking part in some sport where strenuous muscle activity is a common thing. Even muscle fatigue from sitting or lying in an unusual position can lead to leg cramps, especially in older adults.
Diseases of other organs or certain drugs can also cause the leg cramps occurrence.
The adrenal gland diseases can interfere with the potassium value in serum. This, also, occurs as the side effect of use of the specific range of diuretics. Doctors usually recommend checkup and eventual recovery of this mineral.
Sometimes the reason for the muscle cramps may be undiagnosed diabetes, which is often symptomatic in feeling legs or arms numbness. These polyneuropathies can lead to frequent muscle cramps in early stages of diabetes. This happens when very high glucose values in the blood decrease the potassium level during insulin therapy in the blood. This mineral supplement prevents the emergence of a much more dangerous heart rhythm disturbances, which can be life threatening.
Some of the rare causes and triggers of leg cramps may be: kidney dialysis, certain diseases such as narrowing of the leg arteries or nerve disorders, cirrhosis of the liver, lead poisoning or sarcoidosis. If you get leg cramps, don’t panic, because most of these conditions and diseases which trigger them come with a whole lot of other symptoms, so if you are getting only leg cramps, it’s probably because of some of the more common reasons.
It has also been reported that muscle weakness, usually linked with low potassium levels, can cause leg cramps.
Leg Cramps at Night
Leg cramps at night or so called “rest cramps” are most common occurrence of leg cramps. These are, again, prevalent at older age, but they can hit any demography, even children. People who subject themselves to vigorous physical exercise or work are more likely to have leg cramps occurrences when they are not physically active. These are most common during night and that’s why they are sometimes called night or nocturnal leg cramps. Sometimes these leg cramps can be that uncomfortable and unsettling that we might even wake up in the middle of the night.
Night leg cramps usually hit the calf muscle, probably because when lying in bed our knees are slightly bent and feet are pointed down a bit which shortens the calf.
Leg cramps should not be mistaken with the periodical limping. Limping appears because of the narrowed arteries. Leg pain appears because of an insufficient amount of oxygen in muscle after a short walk of approximately ten meters. If the person continues to walk, lactic acid accumulates in the muscle and muscle starts to hurt.
While leg cramps can sometimes be a symptom of more serious medical conditions and diseases, in most cases they are nothing to worry about as most people experience them as an isolated complication which is more of a nuisance than a real, serious problem. Still, if your leg cramps occur frequently and cause you pain and discomfort you’d rather avoid, it’s best that you consult your personal/family doctor or specialist for appropriate leg cramps treatment.