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Leg Cramps | What Causes It?

Leg Cramp

Picture this: it’s late in the evening, and you’ve just completed your nighttime routine. You’ve put on your coziest pajamas and brushed your teeth.

You climb into bed, turn out the lights, get comfortable, and are just about to drift off to sleep, and then…

Suddenly, you feel a sharp pain in your calf that seems to come out of nowhere. You had no idea it was coming. Perhaps you also experience some tingling or burning in your muscles, and you impulsively stretch out your calf or grab your leg to make this pain go away.

Most people have experienced a muscle cramp at one point in their lives. There are many different reasons one may experience cramps, such as exercise, dehydration, or premenstrual syndrome for those with ovaries.

But the type of cramps from this scenario above are nocturnal leg cramps, sometimes referred to as rest cramps.

These specific cramps are experienced by millions of people. Up to 37% of people experience nocturnal leg cramps[1]. 

For most, these nocturnal leg cramps make a rare appearance and are simply a mild annoyance.

However, for some people, these cramps can be debilitating, frequently interrupting sleep and impacting overall quality of life.

But whether you suffer from a rare moment of sleep disruption or a constant nightly occurrence, there are many different ways that you can tackle this painful problem head-on and alleviate symptoms.

In this article, we’re going to talk all about leg cramps, with an emphasis on those of the nocturnal variety. We’ll discuss their causes (there are several), other symptoms, prevention, treatment, and more.

What Is A Leg Cramp?

A leg cramp is simply a muscle cramp, which is an involuntary contraction of one or more muscles. This happens to occur in the leg.

But leg cramps at night are a particular kind of experience. Commonly called “nocturnal leg cramps” (as we mentioned earlier), this leg sensation specifically appears at night.

You most commonly experience leg pain with the cramp, but sometimes even itching and burning can occur as the muscle contracts.[1]

These cramps can happen in any part of the leg but are most often felt in your calves.[3]

But, if cramps can happen at any time – why do so many sufferers experience them at night specifically?

Keep reading to learn more about the causes of leg cramping, and why they tend to happen at night so often and for so many.

The Causes of Leg Cramps

So, you’re wondering what the main cause of leg cramps at night might be, particularly if you suffer from this condition. 

However, there is not one singular cause of these cramps: there are quite a few different factors and conditions that can lead to leg cramps at night[4]:

Dehydration. If you don’t drink enough water during the day you might end up suffering from leg cramps. They can also happen if you drink water but don’t include enough electrolytes in your diet. 

Muscle Fatigue. If you perform strenuous exercise and overuse your muscles, you could experience muscle fatigue and cramping afterward, especially by the time you go to bed.

Low activity level. Leg cramps tend to occur when there is a lack of activity or when staying in one position for too long, which is why this tends to happen when you are falling asleep. 

Certain Medical Conditions. Conditions such as diabetes, neurological disorders, kidney disease, or venous insufficiency can lead to nocturnal leg cramps.

Age. Older patients, particularly senior age, are more likely to experience leg cramps.[2]  

Medications. You might experience cramps as a side effect when taking certain medications. Diuretics, statins, and certain asthma prescriptions are known to increase the risk. 

Pregnancy. Pregnancy can lead to many big changes in the human body, including leg cramps. This is more likely during the later stages of pregnancy.

So, while leg cramps impact many, many different people, you now know there are a variety of reasons a person may be experiencing them. 

And for a lot of patients, these leg cramps are more than just a bit irritating. Sometimes recurring leg cramps can lead to additional symptoms and fully disrupt your life.

Now that we’ve addressed the reasons for leg cramps, let’s discuss the negative side effects of this condition. 

leg cramps

The Symptoms and Side Effects of Leg Cramps

Most of us have experienced cramps at one point in time or another.

Oftentimes they are temporarily painful and uncomfortable.

However, experiencing leg cramps in the evening can lead to a whole other set of problems for sufferers. 

Some additional problems or complications include:

  • Muscle soreness. If you experience a leg cramp episode, the affected muscles can remain sore afterward. This can lead to reduced mobility and potentially interfere with daily activities, such as walking.[5]
  • Falling. If a cramp appears out of nowhere, you might lose your balance and potentially fall out of bed if you try to stand. Falling can then lead to bruising and, in more extreme circumstances, sprains and fractures. This is more likely if you are a senior experiencing leg cramps at night. [6]
  • Anxiety. After experiencing leg cramps for multiple nights in a row, you may find going to bed stressful and have trouble relaxing and falling asleep. 
  • Sleep disruption. Leg cramps can cause you to wake up repeatedly in the middle of the night, reducing sleep quality. [7] The previously mentioned anxiety can turn this into a cycle of not sleeping and more stress, over and over again.

Let’s expand on that last point: sleep disruption. 

Sleep disruption, in particular, is a major side effect that can lead to several additional health problems.

For example, getting through your workday while battling fatigue can lead to decreased productivity levels and it can be much harder to complete other everyday tasks.

This can lead to additional stress as work piles up and focus wanes, leading to an overall negative impact on mental health.[8]

Leg cramps can simply seem like leg pain, or your leg itching, burning, or feeling uncomfortable. However, a persistent leg cramping issue can lead to a decrease in quality of life. 

Fortunately, there are certain healthy habits you can put into practice and treatments you can try to stop leg cramps in their tracks.

Or, if you do not experience this currently, you can implement habits to prevent them from happening in the first place.

The next two sections will address different prevention and treatment options. 

Prevention Leg Cramps

We’ve learned that leg cramps at night – or at any time of day – can vary from a mild annoyance to a debilitating condition.

The causes of leg cramps are varied, and there are a number of additional side effects associated with this condition.

However, there are healthy practices and certain treatments that can help prevent leg cramps at night and keep them from becoming a major life disrupter.

Let’s learn more about how you can reduce leg cramps on your own without medical intervention [9]:

  1. Stay hydrated.

Drinking water is beneficial for so many functions of the human body, and it can also reduce the risk of leg cramps. Make sure to include electrolytes as well, which we will discuss a bit further below.

  1. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

A little moderation goes a long way. Caffeine and alcohol can dehydrate you, so keeping cups of coffee and glasses of wine to a minimum can be incredibly beneficial if you suffer from leg cramps. Try to avoid these completely before bed if you experience leg cramps at night 

  1. Eat a balanced diet.

Make sure you get plenty of potassium, calcium, and magnesium in your diet to reduce the risk of muscle cramps. 

  1. Exercise regularly.

Keep your muscles flexible with regular exercise and stretching. Just make sure to avoid overdoing it, or you might make the problem worse!

  1. Improve your bedtime situation. 

Optimize your sleep environment. Make your bedroom a sanctuary! Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and supportive and that you can avoid sleeping in cramped conditions. 

  1. Review the medications you are taking.

Earlier in this article while discussing the causes of leg cramps, you learned that certain medications can lead to an increased risk of leg cramps. If you are taking diuretics, statins, or certain asthma medications, and your leg cramps are impacting your quality of life, consider talking to your doctor to explore other medication options for you.[10]

Speaking of doctors, if leg cramps become enough of a problem that you find it affecting your sleep cycles and day-to-day life, it might be time to consult with a medical professional.

Keep reading to learn more about medical treatments. 

leg cramps

Treatments for Leg Cramps

If leg cramps are interrupting your sleep and causing undue stress and anxiety, seeking a medical professional is recommended.

There are several methods your doctor may try to reduce your leg cramps:

Adjusting medications.

If you suspect your medications may be causing leg cramps, let your doctor know. They will evaluate your prescriptions and possibly suggest alternate medications you can take where leg cramps are not a known side effect.

Addressing medical conditions

Leg cramps can stem from certain medical conditions. One example is venous insufficiency.[11]

When a patient suffers from venous insufficiency, the decreased circulation, inflammation, and nerve compression can lead to frequent leg cramps. A medical professional will then recommend treatments for venous insufficiency, such as radiofrequency ablation, to tackle the main problem straight on to reduce its side effects, thus reducing leg cramps.

Other conditions linked to an increased risk of leg cramps include diabetes or neurological disorders.

Compression Therapy

For patients suffering from leg cramps tied to venous insufficiency or poor circulation, a doctor may recommend compression therapy.

While they are actively studying the effectiveness of compression socks as a way to reduce leg cramps[12], compression socks can indeed improve symptoms of venous insufficiencies, leading to reduced side effects, such as leg cramping.[13] 


Electrolytes are important! A medical professional can perform blood tests and identify possible deficiencies in minerals like potassium or magnesium. In that instance, they may recommend that you take over-the-counter supplements available at your local pharmacy or health food store.

Stretching recommendations.

If certain muscles are prone to cramping, such as calf muscles, a doctor or physical therapist may recommend regular stretching throughout the day or before bed to improve flexibility and, ultimately, reduce leg cramps. A physical therapist can share both safe and effective techniques to stretch out muscles.[14]

Stress reduction.

It’s not just about the physical stress on your muscles when it comes to cramps. Did you know that mental stress can exacerbate leg cramps? When you have trouble falling asleep due to cramps, this can cause additional stress, making it even harder to fall asleep, and forming a vicious cycle![7]

A doctor may recommend working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to help you better manage any anxiety you may feel. Your doctor or therapist may also recommend simple relaxation exercises or meditation to decrease stress.[15]

As you can see, not only are there many at-home strategies to reduce and prevent leg cramps but there are also several other treatments that medical professionals can provide.


Nocturnal leg cramps can mean different things to different people, and no two experiences with leg cramps for the same.

For one person, it might mean an annoying twinge of pain before falling asleep. 

For another, it might be a constant struggle, leading to less sleep, and less productivity during the day.

For one patient, adding more magnesium to their diet and taking a walk may be all they need to alleviate their symptoms.

And for another patient, radiofrequency ablation for venous insufficiency might do the trick. 

It’s important to stay informed of this condition and all that it entails so we can be a support system for those who are suffering, and be there when our friends, family, and loved ones need it. 

As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, nocturnal leg cramps affect millions of people, and chances are someone you know may experience this painful problem. 

Fortunately, there is a large amount of knowledge out there regarding nocturnal leg cramps, and armed with the information in this article, you can help someone you know – or perhaps yourself – to eliminate the negative side effects of this condition. 

If you or a loved one are suffering from leg cramps and find it disrupting everyday activities, and you believe it might be related to venous insufficiency, varicose veins, or another vein-related condition, there is help out there for you.

The team of experts at  Elite Vein Clinic is here to provide solutions for vein conditions of all kinds. Our clinic is professional and patient-focused, providing top-of-the-line care and modern treatments for those experiencing a variety of vein-related medical concerns.

There is no need to continue to tolerate the pain and inconvenience of nocturnal leg cramps any longer. Contact Elite Vein Clinic today! 


  1. Naylor JR, Young JB. A general population survey of rest cramps. Age Ageing. 1994 Sep;23(5):418-20. doi: 10.1093/ageing/23.5.418. PMID: 7825490.
  2. Abdulla AJ, Jones PW, Pearce VR. Leg cramps in the elderly: prevalence, drug and disease associations. Int J Clin Pract. 1999 Oct-Nov;53(7):494-6. PMID: 10692732.
  8. Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep, 9, 151-161.
  10. Garrison SR, Dormuth CR, Morrow RL, Carney GA, Khan KM. Nocturnal Leg Cramps and Prescription Use That Precedes Them: A Sequence Symmetry Analysis. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(2):120–126. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.1029
  11. Hirai M. Prevalence and characteristics of muscle cramps in patients with varicose veins. Vasa. 2000 Nov;29(4):269-73. doi: 10.1024/0301-1526.29.4.269. PMID: 11141650.
  12. Joensuu J, Mustajoki PP, Mustonen PK, Kaila M, Koskela T. Prevention of leg cramps by using compression stockings or magnesium supplements in the 50-84 age group: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials. 2021 Nov 29;22(1):860. doi: 10.1186/s13063-021-05753-0. PMID: 34844641; PMCID: PMC8628416.
  13. Lim, C. S., & Davies, A. H. (2014). Graduated compression stockings. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal, 186(10), E391.
  14. Andrews AW, Pine R. Physical therapy for nocturnal lower limb cramping: A case report. Physiother Theory Pract. 2019 Feb;35(2):190-197. doi: 10.1080/09593985.2018.1441932. Epub 2018 Feb 26. PMID: 29482418.
  15. Nakao M, Shirotsuki K, Sugaya N. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for management of mental health and stress-related disorders: Recent advances in techniques and technologies. Biopsychosoc Med. 2021 Oct 3;15(1):16. doi: 10.1186/s13030-021-00219-w. PMID: 34602086; PMCID: PMC8489050.

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