Treatment of Leg & Foot Cramps

Treatment should be directed at the possible causes of leg cramps at night if it is suspected that the condition is occurring as a symptom of one of the causes or risk factors. However, nocturnal leg cramps as a parasomnia disorder is not treatable and the exact cause is unknown therefore the focus should be on management of the condition.

Some important points should be noted in the treatment of secondary causes of night leg cramps.

  • Drugs should not be discontinued without the supervision and approval of your medical practitioner. Many drugs that may cause leg cramps are used to treat chronic conditions which could prove fatal or lead to debilitating complications if left untreated.
  • Dehydration or causes of dehydration like diarrhea should be treated with electrolyte rich fluids rather than just water. This will assist with greater absorption of fluids as well as reducing the symptoms of dehydration (like leg cramps) rather than further aggravating the diarrhea.
  • Anemia affects many menstruating women and is not just a matter of suitable iron supplementation. Malabsorption syndromes in menstruating women means that their gut does not absorb iron effectively. A vitamin C supplement used along with an iron tablet or consuming foods high in iron may be more effective than just iron supplementation on its own.
  • Calcium deficiency as a possible cause of leg cramps at night should not be treated in isolation and the calcium supplement should be selected carefully. Certain bonded forms of calcium are better absorbed by the gut and it is advisable to use a magnesium supplement concurrently for improved calcium absorption. Your pharmacist or medical doctor will be able to advise you on your best option for calcium and magnesium supplementation.
  • Potasssium deficiency should not be treated without medical supervision as a high intake of potassium when self medicating can contribute to cardiac and renal complications.

Management of Night Leg Cramps

Managing leg cramps at night may be dependent on the cause but if occurring due to unknown causes (idiopathic), some conservative measures may assist with reducing the frequency or severity of nocturnal leg cramping.

  • Activity, mild exercise and stretching exercises prior to bedtime may assist with reducing leg cramps at night. Ensure that any activity or exercise is not strenuous on the muscles or this may further aggravate leg cramping and always precede your exercise program with a suitable ‘warm up’ of muscle stretching.
  • Many sufferers of leg cramps at night opt to elevate their legs with one or two pillows while lying in bed to ease the frequency and severity of cramping. This may be advisable in certain cases of leg cramping especially in cases like pregnancy. However elevating the legs is not advisable in certain cases of cardiovascular conditions, liver disorders or if the elevation is causing paleness of the leg, cold or clamminess or numbness and tingling.
  • Warm applications (heat therapy) are useful for muscle cramping but should be used with caution. In cases of peripheral vascular disease, diabetic neuropathy and other causes of leg numbness, applying extremely hot applications to reduce leg muscle cramps may cause first or second degree burns.
  • Topical applications commonly used for muscle aches and pains may not always be effective in easing leg cramps at night. These creams and gels may be used to prevent muscle cramping at night although its effectiveness may be limited. Do not try to apply hard pressure or deeply massage a stiff and hard muscle as it can cause damage to the muscle fibers.
  • Attempting to walk, stand or forcefully stretch the cramped leg or foot muscle can cause muscle damage. Most attacks of leg cramps at night will ease spontaneously with time and it is advisable to be patient rather than resorting to any extreme measures.
  • In cases of leg cramps at night with significant swelling of the legs, massage techniques like manual lymph drainage is not advisable. Consult with your medical practitioner as your symptoms may be due to peripheral vascular disease, lymphedema or other cardiac, liver or renal disorders.

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Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on November 4, 2009