August 2nd, 2011
12:19 PM ET
Get Some Sleep: Avoid frequent leg cramping
Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs regularly on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.
It is frustrating, to both patients and doctors, that modern medical science often lacks understanding of or treatment for common, everyday ailments.
One such ailment, leg cramps, is very common and yet poorly understood. It often plagues people at night, and therefore “sleep-related leg cramps” is recognized as a bona fide sleep disorder by the International Classification of Sleep Disorders.
Most people have had a “charley horse” and know that leg cramps can be quite painful. Leg cramps result from the sudden, intense and involuntary contraction of a muscle or muscle group. They usually occur in the calf muscle or the small muscles of the feet.
The painful sensation is usually relieved by strenuous stretching of the affected muscle. Often, people jump out of bed in their attempt to stop the searing pain. Both the prevalence and frequency increase as people age. There is research showing that approximately one-third of all people over the age of 60 and one-half of those over the age of 80 reported having sleep-related leg cramps once in the previous two months. Six percent of adults over the age of 60 have reported having leg cramps that disturb them every night.
Leg cramps are sometimes confused with restless legs syndrome (now known as Willis-Ekbom disease), but the two disorders are quite different, although patients can have both problems.
RLS is not commonly described as a sudden, intense pain. Also, people who suffer from RLS usually have a steady, uncomfortable feeling in the legs that lasts for hours, and this maddening feeling is only temporarily relieved for a few minutes while they move or rub their legs.
There are some medical conditions that seem to predispose people to leg cramps such as diabetes, peripheral vascular disease and neuromuscular disorders. Medications such as oral contraceptives have been associated with leg cramps. They occur in approximately 40% of pregnant women and usually resolve after birth.
If leg cramping is frequent and intense, people should not assume that they have benign, idiopathic (of unknown cause) leg cramps. It is advised to consult a physician in order to differentiate leg cramps from more serious medical conditions such as akathisia, myelopathy, peripheral neuropathy and disorders of calcium imbalance.
There are numerous theories about the cause of leg cramps but little evidence supporting the veracity of any given theory. One common notion is that they result from dehydration, but the little research done does not support this.
Also common is the idea that there is a relative electrolyte imbalance. Magnesium and potassium are popular culprits. Again, there is little research on this. One study attempted to treat leg cramps in a group of pregnant women and found that magnesium was no better than a placebo.
The same is true for potassium deficiency; there is no research showing that low potassium causes leg cramps or that taking extra potassium prevents them. That said, I have patients who swear that a banana before bed takes care of the leg cramping problem. I also know people who report that sitting in a bath of Epsom salts right before bed helps ward off nocturnal leg cramps.
I have patients who think that the leg cramps come upon them only when they exercise strenuously, and then there are those who associate the cramps with lack of exercise. The best theory is the “squatting hypothesis,” which speculates that leg cramping is associated with the modern habit of sitting on chairs and on the toilet instead of squatting as our forebears would have done.
I believe that is just another way of saying that leg cramps could be caused by a lack of strengthening and stretching of the calf and feet muscles.
Follow @CNNHealth on Twitter
The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon everyday. It will always be helpful to read through articles from other authors and practice a little something from other sites.
I absolutely love your blog.. Pleasant colors & theme. Did you create this amazing site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my own site and want to know where you got this from or just what the theme is named. Appreciate it!
You are so cool! I don't think I've truly read through something like that before. So great to discover someone with a few genuine thoughts on this subject. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with some originality!
Hi, I do think this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to revisit once again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide others.
Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful article. Thank you for supplying these details.
Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to create a great article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don't seem to get anything done.
bookmarked!!, I love your website!
Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular article! It's the little changes that produce the most significant changes. Many thanks for sharing!
A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I think that you ought to publish more on this subject, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people don't talk about such issues. To the next! Many thanks!!
Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you, However I am going through issues with your RSS. I don’t understand why I am unable to join it. Is there anybody else having identical RSS problems? Anyone that knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!
Good blog you've got here.. It’s hard to find high quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! Take care!!
I was pretty pleased to find this web site. I need to to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely appreciated every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff on your website.
This website was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me. Thanks!
I blog quite often and I seriously thank you for your information. This article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to bookmark your website and keep checking for new details about once per week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.
You are so awesome! I do not believe I have read through something like this before. So good to find someone with a few genuine thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!
I blog frequently and I genuinely appreciate your content. The article has really peaked my interest. I'm going to book mark your blog and keep checking for new information about once per week. I opted in for your Feed too.
There is certainly a lot to learn about this issue. I really like all the points you have made.
I used to be able to find good advice from your blog articles.
You need to take part in a contest for one of the most useful websites online. I'm going to highly recommend this site!
Hi, I do believe this is a great site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I'm going to revisit once again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.
An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a friend who has been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me lunch because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this matter here on your internet site.
Great info. Lucky me I discovered your blog by accident (stumbleupon). I've book-marked it for later!
This site really has all the info I needed about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.
It’s hard to come by experienced people in this particular subject, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks
Greetings! Very useful advice within this article! It's the little changes that will make the largest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!
I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I came across this in my search for something concerning this.
Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this website before but after browsing through a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly pleased I came across it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!
I was able to find good information from your articles.
Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Thank you for providing this info.
Hi, I do believe this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will come back yet again since i have book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.