If you’ve ever experienced leg cramp in the middle of the night, you will know the shock of the pain is no fun at all. So what can you do when a cramp takes hold? And what can you do to prevent it?
A muscle cramp is an uncontrollable and painful spasm of a muscle.
Any muscle can be affected, but cramps in the muscles of the calf and foot are most common. Research from The Netherlands shows that up to 33% of the general population over 50 years of age are affected by nocturnal leg cramps. While a cramp generally resolves itself, you can speed up the process by stretching and massaging the muscle or applying a heat pack to the affected area.
The exact cause of cramp is unknown but there are factors that have been linked to an increased risk including medical conditions such as atherosclerosis and sciatica.
Traditionally, such cramping was believed to arise from dehydration, electrolyte imbalances (including magnesium, potassium and sodium), accumulation of lactic acid but according to Associate Professor of Physiology at Lake Erie College, Mark Andrews these proposals have been shown to have minimal scientific value. Andrews says that more recent developments indicate that the cause of cramps most likely is a result of prolonged sitting, poor or abnormal posture or poor flexibility. Age also seems to predispose individuals to cramping. Other factors include increased body weight and improper footwear (high heel shoes are often linked to leg cramps).
Information published by Medline Plus cites straining a muscle as the most common cause of muscle cramp. Unlike Professor Andrews they site dehydration, compression of your nerves, low levels of electrolytes, pregnancy and certain medications as also causing muscle cramps.
So what can you do to reduce the frequency of leg cramps? Research published in the Journal of Physiotherapy show that stretching the calf and hamstring each day before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults.