For runners, especially those who compete on a worldwide professional level, nothing can be as worse as a leg cramp a dozen meters or so away from the finish line. It just goes to show that even something as trivial as a cramp can have very large repercussions on someone’s life or career. If you’re thinking, “Not all of us are runners, so leg cramps shouldn’t affect me”, then how about this: one of the leading causes of drowning are leg cramps, regardless of whether you’re an expert swimmer or not. That puts leg cramps on a whole new light, doesn’t it?
Cramping Up Your Style
A leg cramp is an unpleasant and often painful sensation in your leg that is the result of contraction or over shortening of the leg muscles. It’s due to a muscle spasm when the muscle contracts too hard. Usually, leg cramps occur in one of the calf muscles, below and behind the knee. Sometimes, the small muscles of the feet are affected.
The leg cramp pain that a person experiences varies, as do the duration; muscles may remain tender for up to 24 hours. Typical leg cramps last for several minutes, although there are cramps that only last for a couple of seconds. On the other end of the spectrum, they can last for ten minutes. The latter is dangerous especially if you’re in open waters.
Leg cramps usually happen when you’re resting or when you’re sleeping at night, hence the reason why they’re also called as night cramps. The pain hurts enough to wake you up from sleep. If leg cramps happen all the time, then it may disrupt your sleeping habits, eventually affecting your day to day activities.
While everyone experiences leg cramps at least once in their lives, they occur more frequently for some people. Older people have greater chances of experiencing leg cramps, for example. Statistics show that about one out of three people above the age of 50 have regular leg cramps, while for people over the age of 80, the percentage rises to about half. Also, four out of ten people who have leg cramps tend to experience them at least three times per week. In some cases, the occurrence even happens every day.
Causes of Leg Cramps
Leg cramps is just another category in the broad subject that is cramps. As such, knowing how a cramp occurs is a good way to understand how a leg cramp develops. To understand it, you have to understand how your muscles work.
When you use muscles that you have total control over—say those of your arms and legs—the muscles contract and relax as the limbs are moved. If these muscles contract involuntarily, then you have is called a “muscle spasm”. A muscle spasm can be quite painful, with the muscles clenching tightly all of a sudden. If this spasm becomes sustained and forceful and does not relax, then you will have muscle cramps.
With leg cramps, the muscles that are affected are those in the legs. In most cases, the cause for the muscles cramping up is now known as idiopathic leg cramps. One theory states that they occur when a muscle that is already shortened is stimulated to contract unexpectedly. As the muscle is already shortened in the first place, contracting it further may cause it to go into a spasm.
Such a theory may explain why leg cramps usually happen at night since the natural position people lie in bed is with the knees slightly bent and with the feet pointing slightly downwards. In this position, your calf muscle is relatively shortened, thereby making it more prone to cramps.
Other causes for a leg cramp include:
- over-exertion of muscles
- inadequate blood supply due to the narrowing of the arteries that bring blood to the legs
- pregnancy, usually happening in the later stages
- excess alcohol
- compression of nerves in your spine (also called lumbar stenonis)
- mineral depletion, especially potassium, calcium, or magnesium
- medicines such as diuretics, usually prescribed for high blood pressure
Getting Rid of Leg Cramps
Leg cramps are rarely serious. You don’t have to go to a doctor to get rid of it, unless it becomes unbearably painful in which case it might be a symptom of another more serious disease. Barring that, here are some tips to get rid of that painful leg cramp:
- Massage the affected area of your leg. Massaging the cramped muscle and rubbing it gently will help it to relax, easing the tension and lessening the pain. Gently stretch the calf muscle by putting your legs out in front of you and flexing your foot toward the ceiling. To get the most out of the stretch, elongate your leg.
- Do some stretching exercises. Stretching exercises help pull out the muscles from their shortened position. To stretch calf muscles, stand about 60-90 centimeters from a wall. Keep the soles of your feet flat on the floor and then bend forward, leaning on the wall. Do this several times for as long as you can.
- Apply a hot or cold compress. A cold compress will help you relax the muscles. A hot compress, on the other hand, will help ease some of the pain or tenderness. You may also use a warm towel or a heating pad.
- Sleep in the proper position. Use a pillow to prop the bed up while sleeping on your back. If you sleep on your front, try hanging your feet over the end of the bed. Keep blankets loose at the foot of the bed so your toes and feet won’t point downwards while sleeping.
Pain medications generally don’t help much in getting rid of your leg cramps. However, they might be useful during those times when your pain persists for a long time after the cramp is gone. In any case, proper nutrition and stretching before any rigorous exercise or training should help lessen your chances of getting leg cramps.
Click here to learn more about how to get rid of leg cramps.