Cramps in the Leg

leg cramps

A leg cramp is a pain that comes from a leg muscle. It is due to a muscle spasm which is when a muscle contracts too hard. It usually occurs in a calf muscle, below and behind a knee. The small muscles of the feet are sometimes affected.

A cramp pain typically lasts a few minutes. In some cases it lasts just seconds, but in some cases it lasts up to 10 minutes.

Who gets leg cramps?

They are more common in older people. About 1 in 3 people over the age of 60, and about half of people over the age of 80, have regular leg cramps.

What causes leg cramps?

Unknown cause (idiopathic leg cramps)

Secondary causes

In some cases, the cramps may be a symptom of another problem. For example:

  • Some drugs can cause cramps as a side-effect, or make cramps occur more often. These include: diuretics (water tablets), nifedipine, cimetidine, salbutamol, statins, terbutaline, lithium, clofibrate, penicillamine, phenothiazines, and nicotinic acid.
  • Over-exertion of muscles.
  • Dehydration.
  • Conditions such as a high or low sodium or potassium level.
  • Some people who have renal  dialysis get leg cramps.
  • Pregnancy - usually in the later stages.
  • An untreated underactive thyroid gland.
  • Peripheral vascular disease.
  • Excess alcohol.
  • Some uncommon disorders of nerves.

What is the treatment for a leg cramp?

Stretching and massaging the affected muscle can usually relieve an attack of cramp. Most cramps soon ease off. Painkillers are not usually helpful as they do not act quickly enough.

What are the options for preventing leg cramps?

  • Consider your medication

Tell your doctor if you take any of the drugs listed earlier. It may be causing the leg cramps, or making them recur more often.

  • Stretching exercises

At first, do stretching exercises of affected muscles for about five minutes, three times a day. Do the last exercise shortly before bedtime.

  • Posture of the legs when resting in bed
    • Using a pillow to prop the feet up in bed while sleeping on your back.
    • Hanging the feet over the end of the bed while sleeping on your front.
  • Quinine is used as a last resort

If you take quinine you have a good chance of reducing the number and/or severity of leg cramps, but it may not stop them altogether. One tablet at bedtime is the normal dose.
Side-effects are uncommon at the low dose used to treat leg cramps. However, serious side-effects do sometimes occur. Note: quinine is dangerous in overdose, particularly in children and pregnant women. Keep tablets away from children.Therefore, quinine is only used as a last resort when other treatments have not worked, and leg cramps are frequent and are affecting your quality of life.

  • Other treatments

Other drugs have been suggested as possible treatments for leg cramps. These include: magnesium, diltiazem, vitamin B complex, vitamin E, naftidrofuryl, orphenadrine, and verapamil. In general, these are not currently recommended, as most studies involving them found that they do not work very well in most people.

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