May 25th, 2011
08:11 AM ET

What causes leg cramps?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Wednesdays, it's Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

Asked by Cleester of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

I am generally a very healthy woman. I frequently wake up at night with painful cramps in the thighs and the back of my legs below the knee. What causes cramps and how can I get rid of them?

Expert answer

Dear Cleester,

Cramping is painful contracture of muscles. It generally lasts for five to 10 minutes and then remits. It can awaken someone from a sound sleep.

Cramping of the legs and feet is very common. Cramping in the hands and arms is seen but less common.

This condition is seen in children or adults of any age. People who have cramping regularly should be seen by a health care provider, even though the cause is often never found after extensive evaluation.

When the cause is found, cramping can be due to prolonged sitting or leg position during sedentary activity.

Perhaps most commonly, cramps can be due to overuse of muscles that are not accustomed to exercise.

The second most common cause is dehydration. Cramps can also be caused by electrolyte and metabolic disorders. Diuretic drugs can commonly cause cramping through dehydration, sodium or potassium depletion.

Parathyroid disease causes high or low calcium levels and is associated with cramping, as is thyroid dysfunction. Parathyroid and thyroid diseases are perhaps a more common cause of cramping in the hands and arms compared with other causes of cramping.

The evaluation of cramping will commonly involve a drug history and blood studies checking sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium levels as well as thyroid function tests.

The physical examination is usually normal in a patient with routine cramping. The health care provider will also be trying to distinguish common cramping from muscle diseases that can mimic it and be an uncommon side effect of commonly prescribed drugs used to lower cholesterol (such as cholestyramine) or decrease stomach acid (cimetidine or ranitidine).

Decreased oxygenation of leg muscles due to peripheral vascular disease and the pain of diabetic neuropathy can also be mistaken for cramps. Leg cramps are best prevented with nondrug treatments.

Daily stretching and muscle strengthening can be very useful in preventing cramps. Stretching the muscle group during the cramp attack can be helpful in relieving it.

Chloroquine or the similar compound quinine (an ingredient of tonic water) has been prescribed to prevent cramping. Chloroquine has recently fallen out of favor.

Calcium channel blockers have become the preferred first medical treatment for cramping in patients who get them often for unknown reasons.

A few people find that a daily dose of vitamin B complex prevents cramping.

soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. ddg

    Check to see if your sheets, at the end of your bed, are tucked in the mattress to tight and not letting your feet and legs have the proper blood flow. I first started noticing when I would 'loosely' tuck the sheets under the mattress I didn't have leg cramps in the middle of the night. But, I also take calcium and B vitamins, which help a lot.

    May 26, 2011 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Johhob

    Here's an odd pressure point that will relieve a night cramp in your calf quickly. Squeeze the fleshy tissue between your thumb and index finger, hard! Here's the odd part; Apply the pressure to the hand on the opposite side from the leg where the cramp is occurring. Left calf then apply pressure to the right hand. This information was included in a how to book by an ultra distance bicycler. It works but it is hard to remember when you wake up in the middle of the night with a cramp. I once spent several minutes squeezing then biting my fingers until remembering where the pressure point was located.

    May 26, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • confused

      I just have my spouse bang me over the head with the lamp on the night stand. A few bangs with that makes me forget all about my leg cramps.............

      May 26, 2011 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
  3. ToneJunkie

    Years ago I suffered from awful leg cramps that would have me screaming from a sound sleep. I did a lot of research as the few doctors I saw were clueless. In the end I discovered the cause on my own which is rarely mentioned in articles like these. My leg cramps were simply caused from blood flow being cut off by one leg laying over the other. Sometimes my shin would lay across the calf muscle for a long time while I slept. What cured this for immediately and 100% was learning to sleep with a soft pillow between my legs at night. For those of you desperate like I was .. give this a shot.

    May 26, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mack

    This article was a waste of time. Basically it amounts to *shrugs* 'We dont' know what causes it. Your guess is as good as ours.' Statin drugs have been proven to cause cramping. Your cholesterol may be lower but you can barely move during the day. Now that's progress.

    May 26, 2011 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. maura

    I was plagued with terrible leg cramps for most of my childhood. I was always told they were "growing pains" and to take a beyer. This seldom worked. Then, I was diagnosed with firbromyalgia in college. Go figure.

    May 26, 2011 at 13:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. TwistedToes

    I have suffered with foot cramps all my life, but they are more common and severe now that I'm older. Being hydrated and taking vitamins offered little help. I found that if my feet were cold at night, that often triggered it. Wearing socks helps, but sleeping with my feet on the heating pad offered greatest relief. Unfortunately, cold feet cause problems doing winter sports. For this, I do take quinine in pill form.

    May 26, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jill

    For a muscle cramp in your calf, it's easy: Get out of bed and put (force) your heel down on the floor with your toes up. This straightens out the cramped muscle. My mom taught me this many years ago. Works every time.

    May 26, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Margaret Dodd

    I OFTEN HAD BAD LEG CRAMPS especially at night. I found that if I eat a banana every day, or even half a one, I do not have them. I usually have oatmeal for breakfast and sice at eas 1/2 a banana on it. If I do this I do't havthe cramps.

    May 27, 2011 at 01:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Uke

    Both my wife and I suffered from regular leg and foot cramps. We started taking one ounce of Noni juice every night before bed and this helped both of us tremendously. I still get foot cramps on very rare occasions, but my wife who had them much worse then myself, hasn't had one since starting the Noni treatment nearly a year ago.

    June 3, 2011 at 03:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Angela

    I get cramps in my feet – so painful, they wake me up and it takes all my concentration and effort NOT to scream in pain. I find when I take potassium supplements, the cramping occurs less frequently. I am allergic to bananas – a great source of potassium, so I take the supplements. I also am on a diuretic for hypertension, which further depletes my body of potassium (along with an incredibly low-sodium diet). One or two potassium supplements a day though, and I find my cramps are much easier to manage (and not as painful when I do get them). And yes, I do exercise regularly (60 min run 5 days a week, plus weekly yoga and 2x/week strength training).

    June 8, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dawn Kragelund

    I've been getting leg calf cramps daily while swimming in the pool. I was looking for answers and came across this info. Haven't seen any other complaints of cramps while swimming or reasons why they'd be occurring in the pool. I'm clueless .Any answers ??????? Love to hear them!!!! -Crampy in California

    July 11, 2011 at 01:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dorothy

    Not sure if what has recently accured would be a cramp except that along with the severe pain running up the side of my leg from ankle to mid way to knee my toes lock in up position. Have read alot of things that might fit but wonder why it it so sudden, took a walking tour of Ireland and had no problem. happened a week after returning. I exercise 30 min every other day.drink liqquids all day long and take multi-vit,e,calcium. Any direction to follow would help.

    July 14, 2011 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jan

    I have been having cramps in calfs, feet, toes and even on top of feet for almost one year. "Walking it out" was only a temp fix as it would return 5 to 45 minutes after going back to bed. Least bit of cold seems to be the reason. I use a heating pad on low for my feet, make sure the sheets are not binding and if I get a cramp in my calfs the heat from heating pad will make cramp go away. Socks do not help, it is almost like my feet and calfs have to have an extra source of heat. Warming feet with heating pad during day also helps.

    August 17, 2011 at 23:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Pam

    I get leg cramps and cramps in the arches of me feet that keep me up. I'll get one in one leg and soon in the other. I also work and walk an eight hour shift on concrete floors. I can't seem to find relieve. I do have good shoes, but some nights it is unbearable.

    November 6, 2011 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Felicia

    This article failed to mention the simple answers as to why people have leg cramps: dehydration and low potassium. It could be that you're not drinking enough water as of late or getting enough potassium. I think jumping to the conclusion that you have some sort of extreme medical condition is a little reckless. Most people don't get enough water or eat well so these are two very common reasons (and were the reasons my calves started cramping). So, try those two things for a little while before spending tons of money at a doctor's office for them to run millions of tests.

    August 20, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nick

      you obviously don't know how to read. all of those things were mentioned. it's unfortunate that the only thing besides lab tests and questions that will find the cure to something like this, is just trial and error.

      June 15, 2013 at 00:16 | Report abuse |
  16. anne516

    You are going to think this is crazy, but I was told that keeping a bar of bath soap (any kind – I use Dial, but understand that Dove or Irish Spring work just fine) in your bed down near your toes between the bed sheet and the bed pad works wonders. I was skeptical, but was in enough discomfort to try anything. I even looked it up on snopes.com. Can't say it works for everyone, but it certainly has been working for me.

    August 20, 2012 at 17:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Clyde Authement

    Potassium is very important for the regulation of blood pressure. I always regulate my potassium intake at optimum levels. ::".:

    Our web page

    October 7, 2012 at 08:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. darlene

    i too get leg cramps but i just started getting calf cramps i work on concete froor over 8 hours a day 5 day a weeks i take fish oil calcuim posstasium v.e.magium pill nothing seems to work is somthing draws out of your body that i dont know about please let me know, thanks

    October 10, 2012 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Monica

    I used to have a lot of leg cramps, every night and it was getting worse!
    NO MORE.
    Last year I had DaVinci Surgery to remove my FIBROIDS from my uterus, now the fibroids don't take all my magnesium, iron, ... my periods are back to normal, i used to bleed a lot. THANKS TO THE OPERATION I HAVE NO MORE CRAMPS!!!
    I hope this help to those women with the same problems.

    February 24, 2013 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Sofia

    OMG! I am a female 12 yeas old and I've been getting cramps in my freaking calves for the past weeks! It's sooo horrible !!! The first time I wake up at around 6am with this painful cramp in my left calf! I was screaming someone help me! Pls help me! And I was so scared to move and finally I got the courage to stretch my leg out! And it HURT SOOO MUCH! The second time was the same as the first and be this'd was in my right leg! OOOOH! I had the weirdest dreams when I had my cramps. The most recent one was I was screening and I got out of bed and no one was here to help me. And then I threw up. It was white. I wonder where the heck my brain was getting this from!!! Ohhh please someone please help me! Its hurts soo much!

    September 12, 2014 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply

    I am a 52 year old woman and I have had problems with these leg and hand cramps my whole life! am eager to try some of your suggestions thank you!!!!!!

    July 18, 2015 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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