You’re in the midst of a sound sleep when suddenly a sharp and painful cramp strikes your calf muscle. You have little choice but to leap out of bed to stop the pain, which takes several minutes to ease up, regardless of what you try to make it better. Going through a few of these miserable experiences is all the motivation you’ll need to find ways for avoiding leg cramps, and the best way to do that is to learn what causes these cramps in the first place.
Leg cramps can strike people of all ages, but they’re more common among adults over 50, according to the Cleveland Clinic. They often occur at night while at rest. Leg cramps, which are generally a side effect of another condition, come either in isolated episodes or chronically, but the intensity of the cramps is more predictable: For most, the pain is momentarily disabling. Since these cramps can affect the entire leg and cause sudden instability, they pose a particular danger to seniors at risk of a scary fall. Therefore, avoiding leg cramps is an important component of fall-prevention efforts.
What Causes Leg Cramps?
Since most of the reasons for leg cramps are well-known, avoiding them is quite possible. Some of the more common causes, according to Healthline, include:
- Certain medications, including Lasix and other diuretics; statin drugs such as Lipitor, Procardia and other cardiac medicines; Aricept for dementia; Haldol and other antipsychotics; and steroids. These medicines are more commonly used by older adults, many of whom take more than one.
- Medical conditions and chronic diseases such as kidney disease, peripheral artery disease and multiple sclerosis
- Deficiency of potassium and other important electrolytes
- Trauma to or excessive use of afflicted muscles
- Repeated exposure to hard surfaces or cold temperatures
- Poor hydration
Note that leg cramps do not stem from the same condition as restless legs syndrome (RLS). People with RLS experience a peculiar discomfort that requires continuous movement of the legs to achieve relief. Like leg cramps, RLS may be a consequence of some other cause and can require more extensive treatment.
Preventing and Treating Leg Cramps
As with most medical issues, preventive efforts are critical for avoiding leg camps. Take up these simple measures:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in essential minerals.
- Take a multivitamin supplement.
- Exercise routinely, but not excessively.
- Dress appropriately in cold weather.
- Avoid swimming in cold water for long periods.
- Heat is always helpful, whether in the form of a heating pad or hot shower.
- Talk with your healthcare provider about providing alternatives to any medications that might be contributing to the problem.
- A number of stretches might help; check with your healthcare provider for ideas. If the problem is severe enough, your provider may refer you for physical therapy.
- Massage the muscles, and ask a loved one to help with those that are difficult to massage on your own.
For immediate treatment when experiencing a cramp, carefully walk around the room, and shake your leg occasionally. Stretch the muscle, massage it, and apply an ice pack.
Good fall-prevention practices start in unexpected places. Understanding the causes of leg cramps and proactively working to reduce their occurrence can help prevent a hip fracture or another fall-related injury.