What causes leg cramps at night

Nocturnal leg cramps -
so you can prevent it

Just in a sweet slumber, you startle in the middle of the night because the calf muscles painfully contract. It is then about the night's rest. Often such a night cramp lasts only a few minutes - but the pain after the cramp often lasts for hours. On average, women are slightly more likely to suffer from nocturnal muscle cramps than men. The frequency of calf cramps also increases with age. Here you can find out the most important things about the causes, first aid measures and how you can prevent the painful disturbance of the peace in the long term.

How do calf cramps develop?

A cramp is a sudden, painful contraction of certain muscle parts that lasts for a short time and can hardly be resolved at will. When the large calf muscles cramp, the back of the lower leg hardens noticeably. After a few minutes, the spasm resolves again, often leaving long-lasting pain. The toe flexor, which also attaches to the back of the lower leg, is also often affected. Once the cramp has occurred in a certain area, this muscle area can develop a tendency to cramp. As a result, the same place contracts again and again. Even in the cramp-free time, this muscle area remains palpably hard and no longer relaxes completely.

The causes of calf cramps can be varied

The causes of calf cramps can be different and even contradicting each other. Athletes often complain of leg cramps after overstraining their muscles and long, sweaty training sessions. But even people who have not challenged their muscles for too long can expect cramps at night. Long periods of inactivity shorten the under-challenged muscles; when they are reinstated, they react reluctantly. An unhealthy posture that keeps the muscles under constant tension when standing or sitting - this also includes frequent wearing of heeled shoes - can also promote the occurrence of cramps.

Leg cramps are an early warning system for magnesium deficiency

Shifts in the body's electrolyte balance and an undersupply of magnesium are a common cause of calf cramps. As an antagonist to calcium, the body uses magnesium to relax the muscles again after a contraction. If the mineral is missing, the calcium responsible for muscle contraction is overweight, it stimulates the nerve cells and triggers the involuntary contraction of muscle parts. A cramp develops. The calf cramp can possibly be an easily identifiable symptom of a magnesium deficiency, which in turn can be favored by various factors. An undersupply of magnesium can also trigger other cramps, for example it can worsen menstrual pain in women or it can manifest itself in the form of twitching under the eyelid. However, these symptoms are often not immediately associated with the possible cause of a magnesium deficiency.

Causes of Magnesium Deficiency

There are basically three triggers for a magnesium deficiency, which of course can also occur together. These are a temporarily increased need, increased excretion and decreased absorption of magnesium. The first category includes an insufficient supply of magnesium or a magnesium deficiency during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the magnesium requirement increases significantly above the usual level, and pregnant women often complain of leg cramps, especially in the last trimester. You can find out here why it is particularly important to pay attention to the magnesium balance during pregnancy.

Athletes also have a higher need, as their muscles use a lot of magnesium during training, but they also excrete more magnesium and other minerals through sweat. Diseases such as diabetes and the side effects of certain medications can also be responsible for a magnesium deficiency, which can lead to a magnesium deficiency, because they accelerate the elimination of minerals. Last but not least, a one-sided diet and insufficient fluid intake also promote an undersupply of magnesium. The lack of fluids, minerals and electrolytes in particular is a common cause of leg cramps in older people. Here you can find out more about the connection between magnesium deficiency and muscle cramps.

Why do calf cramps come so often at night?

This question has not been finally clarified. And this despite the fact that over 50% of adults report nocturnal calf cramps. One explanation is that the body's magnesium level naturally drops when it is resting. If it falls too low, an unconscious movement during sleep can trigger a muscle contraction, which can then no longer be released due to the changed electrolyte balance. An unnoticed coldness of certain muscle parts at night - for example if the foot is not completely covered - can trigger a cramp. If you were awake you would have involuntarily moved your foot and loosened the muscle the first time you pinched your calf. If the cramp comes during sleep, we only notice it when the muscle is already hardened and we wake up from the pain.

Acute calf cramp - what to do?

Most people instinctively use the right remedy as a first aid measure for a nocturnal calf cramp: They stretch the calf muscles by stretching the heel forward and pulling the toes back with the help of the hands. In many cases, this means that the spasm resolves quickly. Alternatively, try using your hands to gently push the sore muscle together. To do this, gently push the knee joint and heel out of the lower leg with your palms at the same time. Relaxation exercises such as shaking out the legs and then careful walking can also alleviate a convulsive attack.

Lasting help with calf cramps: drink, exercise, pay attention to minerals

If you are repeatedly afflicted by nocturnal leg cramps, you should definitely have a doctor clarify the cause of your cramps in order to be able to take targeted countermeasures. However, the following three measures are definitely helpful:

  1. Make sure you are drinking enough fluids and especially drink mineral water instead of sweetened drinks. If possible, avoid dehydrating substances such as alcohol.
  2. If you don't exercise regularly, do a couple of exercises each day that give your leg muscles a thorough exercise. Here are a few simple stretching and movement routines that a physiotherapist or yoga teacher can teach you, for example. But even a few minutes on the bicycle ergometer or the treadmill can help loosen up the muscles before going to bed. Here, however, the focus should clearly be on easy movement and not on strenuous training.
  3. Check your eating habits and make sure that you are getting the most important minerals, especially magnesium, guaranteed. If magnesium deficiency is suspected, prolonged use of low-dose magnesium could possibly reduce the occurrence of calf cramps, as a placebo-controlled study suggests.

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