According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), about 30 % of American adults report experiencing nocturnal leg cramps at least five times per month. Nocturnal or night leg cramps are characterized by sudden, painful, and involuntary muscle spasms. Leading causes of leg cramps include heavy exercise, muscle strain, overuse of muscles, pregnancy, dehydration, and alcohol misuse. Alcohol contributes to the buildup of lactic acid in the leg muscles, resulting in leg cramps. However, certain lifestyle changes and medications can help manage and prevent the condition.
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What are leg cramps?
Leg cramps refer to sudden, involuntary, and painful contractions of leg muscles, usually affecting the muscles of the thigh, feet, and calves. Sometimes, leg cramps can be extremely uncomfortable and painful; thus, they can affect an individual’s daily activities. Although they may last up to a few seconds, the average duration is about nine minutes per episode.
Nocturnal leg cramps, also known as night or sleep-related leg cramps, are a common condition in which leg cramps predominantly occur at night. Nocturnal leg cramps can result in sleep disturbances and may lead to insomnia.
Common causes of leg cramps
Several factors can cause leg cramps or increase their risk. Some of those factors are discussed below.
Heavy exercise or Prolonged standing
Overexertion of muscles during heavy exercise or prolonged standing can cause microscopic damage in the leg muscle fibers. These damages result in muscle soreness and cramps.
Certain medications such as diuretics, antidepressants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, iron sucrose, and conjugate estrogens can cause nocturnal leg cramps. Generally, these medications produce electrolyte imbalance that may lead to leg cramps.
Alcohol use is strongly associated with nocturnal leg cramps, particularly in people aged 60 or more. Alcohol consumption can lead to muscle tissue damage and deficiencies of vitamin B, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and potassium. Moreover, alcohol contributes to the accumulation of lactic acid inside leg muscle tissues.
Leg cramps commonly occur during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. The probable reason behind pregnancy-related cramps is decreased calcium or increased phosphorus levels in the blood, although the exact mechanism is unknown.
Dehydration can also cause muscle cramps in the legs. Water intake is essential to maintain adequate blood volume, which is needed for an optimal supply of oxygen to muscle tissues. Lack of oxygen supply can cause ischemia of muscle fibers, leading to muscle cramps.