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A woman walking through her living room and stopping to grab her leg because calf cramps at night awoke her.

Calf Cramps at Night

Immediate and Long-Term Relief for Your Calf Cramps at Night 

Calf cramps at night can cause tight and knotted pain in your legs, and in some cases they last for several minutes. It may take days for your muscle to recover from a severe evening cramp without the right treatment.

Here’s a commonality: Leg cramps and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) both occur at night. In contrast to painful muscle cramps, RLS causes long-term discomfort and a physical desire to intermittently move your legs nearly all night long.

Nearly one in two people over the age of 60 suffer from a limited to chronic variation of nocturnal leg cramps, an issue that can impact your quality of life significantly. There is often a link between these cramps and other cramps elsewhere in the body, as well as high blood pressure, diabetes, venous insufficiency, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

According to another study, 84 percent of patients with Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI) experience RLS or nighttime leg cramps. Untreated cramping, especially when your leg is swollen, can cause further complications. Some of these complications include discoloration or changes in skin texture, ultimately causing ulceration and infection.

To fully understand what’s going on when one or more muscles tighten suddenly and unexpectedly, it’s helpful to break down the science behind your chronic calf cramps into visuals and digestible nuggets.


Conditions and Factors Behind Your Calf Cramps at Night

The culprit behind your calf cramps at night can vary. They can happen from exercising or hard work — especially in the heat — and there are also some medicines and illnesses that cause bad muscle cramps.

Cramping occurs mostly in leg muscles, especially in the calf — usually lasting long enough to warrant anything from careful observation to actual treatment (or something in between). The area might be sore for hours or days after the cramp subsides.

Muscle cramps are usually harmless, but other incidents might come from medical conditions such as insufficient blood flow, nerve compression, or a mineral deficiency, leading to chronic calf cramps. When exercising, a cramping pain in your legs and feet can be caused by narrowing of your arteries that supply blood to the legs. As soon as you stop exercising, the cramps usually disappear.

Pressure on the nerves of the spine can also cause cramping pain in the legs. Walking usually worsens the pain in this situation. However, by walking slightly bent forward you actually ease the pain at times. This method looks and feels similar to when you push a heavy shopping cart.

Besides being overweight and not staying active, other factors can cause calf cramps at night:

  • Sweating excessively. Playing sports often leads to muscle cramps for athletes who get tired and sweat a lot.
  • Being pregnant. Extra weight and blood flow that accompanies the supply of oxygen and nutrients to a baby can cause muscle cramps.
  • Your age. Age slowly decreases muscle mass. As a result, your muscles cannot work as hard as they used to. Sudden or harsh stimuli can stress them beyond what they’re capable of.
  • Health and medical problems. Diabetes, liver disease, and thyroid illness can also cause muscle cramps. Other health or medical conditions impact them as well.


For the Time Being, Elevate Your Legs While Sleeping

Calf cramps at night can often be treated with a simple leg elevation pillow. These specialized pillows make sleeping more comfortable, ease lower back pain or knee pain, and assist in post-surgery recovery if needed.

But how does this work? Circulation is improved by raising your legs above your body. By raising your legs, your heart can more efficiently draw up oxygen-depleted blood from your veins. Whenever you raise your legs, you help deliver oxygen to every cell and every tissue in your body.

Leg elevation pillows can help ease inflammation, lower extremity swelling, and the pain inflicted by leg ulcers and varicose veins, as well as reduce the likelihood of blood clots. By flattening the lumbar spine, the pillows can also help decrease back pain. Overall, swelling and pain are reduced.

A leg elevation pillow usually has a washable cover, dense memory foam, breathable material, and a posture-boosting shape that makes it popular. You won’t feel like you’re lying on a board all night because it’s firm, yet soft. Non-slip pillows are designed with cooling gel foam to prevent overheating.

Sleep can feel elusive for those suffering from chronic calf cramps, but this “wedge” can make all the difference.

Besides using the pillow, you can stretch your calf and foot muscles before bed to prevent cramps. Also, moving around enough during every daily activity, errand, or chore can help, as well as drinking lots of water. When sleeping on your back, wear socks that are comfortable and supportive, and be sure your covers are loose.


Health, Lifestyle, and Prevention of Calf Cramps at Night

While neurological disorders, alcohol abuse, low blood sugar, hormone issues, insufficient vitamin intake, flat feet, pregnancy, and nerve damage are all related to calf cramps at night, a pain management specialist can identify the immediate steps you should take to improve your quality of life despite these conditions.

They include:

  • Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) or Endovenous Laser Ablation (EVLA). Fortunately, these are minimally invasive surgeries. Heat is delivered through a tube (catheter) to close the vein. Blood “pools” less once the vein is closed, and blood flow is improved.
  • Sclerotherapy. This is for more serious cases. Specialists inject the affected veins with a unique chemical. As a result, the chemical scars the vein seals it off. In turn, blood redirects itself and finds healthier veins to flow through. As time progresses, your body actually absorbs the closed-off veins.
  • Medications. A combination of compression therapy and medicines that increase blood flow through the vessels may help heal leg ulcers. In addition, after proper consultation with a doctor, you can also treat them with aspirin. However, doctors don’t usually recommend diuretics (medicines that pull excess fluid from the body through the kidneys). You can use them if other conditions such as heart failure or kidney disease also contribute to swelling. Diet can also cause chronic calf cramps. A lack of potassium, calcium, and magnesium can drastically affect your muscles. An eating lifestyle coupled with medications commonly prescribed for high blood pressure can cause these minerals to exit your body faster than they enter it.
  • Surgical procedure. When the situation is severe, vein stripping is an option. Blood can no longer flow through the affected vein after the stripping, as veins with heavily damaged valves are removed.


Relief Starts with Diagnosis and Ends with Proper Treatment

First and foremost, you should incorporate a heart-healthy diet into your 24-hour lifestyle to help rid yourself of calf cramps at night. You can maintain a healthy circulatory system by limiting red meat, processed meats, processed and added sugars, salt and high-sodium foods, highly processed foods, saturated fats, and trans fats. Instead, increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and olive oil or grapeseed oil when cooking.

Remember that cramping and aching legs can be prevented by treating the underlying vessel disease (usually vessel insufficiency). The goal of pain management is to close off problematic vessels and treat vessel insufficiency with a variety of minimally invasive, effective procedures.

Most commonly, weak or damaged vessels cause your chronic calf cramps. These compromised vessels prevent your body from cleaning waste and byproducts from your blood. However, most patients don’t necessarily exhibit these physical symptoms. This quandary is even in conjunction with varicose and spider veins. It’s common for leg cramps to be the only symptom of vessel disease if any symptoms exist at all.

Sclerotherapy or vessel ablation are usually the best treatments for leg cramps. It’s difficult to live with chronic calf cramps, but fortunately there is a cure.


Wellness and Pain Can Help

A range of options for treating calf cramps at night are available at Wellness and Pain. We offer conservative treatments, routine visits, and minimally invasive quick-recovery procedures. We can keep you free of problems by providing lifestyle education and home care advice to help you avoid and manage issues, quickly relieving the inhibiting lifestyle conditions when complications arise.

At Wellness and Pain, we personalize patient care plans based on each patient’s condition and unique circumstances to relieve pain, improve mobility and mental space, and improve your overall health.

Charlie horses causing a woman to sit mid-run and massage her calf and lower leg in the street.

Charlie Horses

Charlie Horses: Risks, Prevention, and the Right Treatment

Charlie Horses is a common name for muscle spasms, where they can feel like your muscles have tightened up and locked down from involuntary contractions.

Even lying down or sleeping can trigger back of leg cramps at night. It’s painful and can happen suddenly. Calves and quadriceps are the most commonly affected muscles by these types of intense leg cramps, although they can occur in any muscle. In addition to the feet, arms, and abdomen, they can also occur in the hands.

It’s not clear what causes a Charlie Horse, but several factors can contribute to them, including dehydration, a lack of electrolytes (including potassium and magnesium), muscle fatigue, stretching a muscle too far, cold weather, taking certain medications (such as diuretics), and some medical conditions (diabetes, kidney disease, etc.). You can also trigger a Charlie Horse by not stretching enough, exercising in high temperatures, not getting enough magnesium or potassium in your diet, and having a spinal cord injury.

One fact is for sure: The best treatment for leg cramps at night is in reach.


Your Risks, Health, and Relationship to Charlie Horses

A pain management specialist or doctor is not needed unless you have Charlie Horses with weakness, numbness, vomiting, diarrhea, or severe sweating (which can cause dehydration). Physical exams and questions about your medical history will be done by your pain management specialist or doctor.

Those with diabetes or thyroid, liver, or nerve disorders tend to suffer from Charlie Horse activity more frequently, as do older adults, athletes, pregnant women, overweight or obese people. There are also several medical and health risk factors leading to back of leg cramps at night, according to a study at the National Library of Medicine, published in 2021:

  • Being diabetic.Type 1 diabetics experience muscle cramps around 60 percent of the time. About 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes have this condition.
  • Chronic renal failure.Muscle cramps in the legs are especially common in individuals with chronic renal failure.
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).There is a 95 percent chance that people with ALS will experience muscle cramps.
  • Having a baby.Pregnant women are more likely to experience muscle cramps at night, especially if they are pregnant.
  • Over 60 years old.Over 60 percent of Americans suffer from nocturnal leg cramps.

Nonetheless, there’s a smart way to treat your bad calf cramps at night.


Treatment and Prevention: The Best Paths Forward

Areas on your lower extremity that are impacted by Charlie Horses can benefit from simple stretching. Put your weight on the affected leg and bend your knee slightly if you have a Charlie Horse in your calf or back of your thigh (hamstring). Put your foot up against your head while seated or lying down.

Hold onto a chair and bend the knee of the affected leg if you have a cramp in the front of your thigh (quadriceps). Pull your foot upwards toward your buttocks. When you lie down, lift your foot, bend your ankle, and point your toes toward your shin to get relief. It loosens the tightness by causing the injured muscles to move in the opposite direction of the contracted muscles.

The muscles can also be relaxed with a massage, epsom salt bath, or heating pad. Ice packs or over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen may also be helpful.

Try relaxing your foot muscle when it tightens up to treat foot cramps. Additionally, ibuprofen can be taken over-the-counter to ease any remaining pain.

In most cases, muscle spasms resolve themselves on their own. Heat applied to your cramp — especially back of thigh cramps at night — can help ease the pain, as well as ice after the heat.

The best treatment for a Charlie Horse, however, is prevention. By drinking plenty of water, stretching before and after exercise, and avoiding cramps at night, you can prevent them. Wear comfortable, supportive shoes, eat magnesium, potassium, and calcium-rich foods, and adjust your exercises as needed. See what the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends for calf stretches, hamstring stretches, and quadriceps stretches.


Additional Cures for Charlie Horses and Night Cramps

Those suffering from Charlie Horses can also benefit from vein ablation, massage therapy, acupuncture, or IV hydration.

Using vein ablation, varicose veins can be treated in a non-invasive manner. Heat, radiofrequency, or chemicals are used to close the vein after a thin catheter is inserted into it. About an hour is usually required for the procedure to be performed outpatient.

A vein can be ablated using laser or radiofrequency energy, helping cure back of leg cramps at night. Laser ablation uses a laser to heat the vein, causing it to close. Varicose veins can be effectively treated with laser ablation and radiofrequency ablation. It depends on the size and location of your varicose veins, as well as your preferences, as to what type of ablation is best for you.

The benefits of massage therapy include the increase in blood flow to the affected muscle, which helps to relax the muscle and reduce pain. Scar tissue and adhesions can also contribute to a Charlie Horse when they are not broken up by massage therapy. Stretching the affected muscle can also help relax it and reduce pain with a deep tissue massage. Firm pressure is used to break up scar tissue and adhesions. In contrast to trigger point massage, myofascial release massage uses gentle pressure to release tension in the fascia, which surrounds your muscles.


Acupuncture Therapy and IV Hydration

A Charlie Horse can also be treated with acupuncture therapy. According to some studies, acupuncture reduces the frequency and severity of a Charlie Horse in people with chronic bad calf cramps at night. It’s not fully known how acupuncture relieves the problem. Acupuncture points have been found to relax muscles and reduce pain when stimulated. Inflammation and pain may also be relieved by acupuncture therapy by improving blood flow to the affected area.

Lastly, IV hydration does not directly eliminate a Charlie Horse, but it can reduce its pain and discomfort by increasing fluid and electrolyte levels. Muscle contractions can be prevented by fluids lubricating the muscles and joints. A muscle’s function relies on electrolytes like potassium and magnesium. In dehydration or electrolyte depletion, muscles can contract.


Origin and Meaning: Describing Leg Cramps

A Charlie Horse — and the plural “Charlie Horses” — is believed to have originated in the United States in the late 1800s, although its origin is unclear. Several theories exist about the origin of the term. It’s believed that the term originated from the name of a baseball player named Charley Radbourne.

In the 1880s, Radbourne pitched for the Boston Beaneaters. During games, he was known to get daytime leg cramps, which can lead to back of leg cramps at night. Newspaper reporters used the term “Charlie Horse” to describe Radbourne’s leg cramp one day.

It may also be derived from the name of a horse that pulled groundskeepers’ carts in baseball parks. It was common for these horses to get leg cramps from being overworked and tired. In reference to the horses, these cramps became known as a “Charlie Horse.”

The term may have been derived from a horsefly that bites horses, according to another theory. As a result of their ability to cause leg cramps in horses, a horsefly of this sort is called a “Charlie Horse.”

It’s now common to refer to back of thigh cramps at night as a “Charlie Horse,” no matter what the origins of the term are. As well as in informal settings, it’s used in medical settings as well. A leg cramp can also be called a muscle cramp, a muscle spasm, a calf cramp, a shin splint, a night cramp, and a writer’s cramp.


Wellness and Pain Can Help

A range of options for treating Charlie Horses are available at Wellness and Pain. We offer conservative treatments, routine visits, and minimally invasive quick-recovery procedures. We can keep you free of problems by providing lifestyle education and home care advice to help you avoid and manage issues, quickly relieving the inhibiting lifestyle conditions when complications arise.

At Wellness and Pain, we personalize patient care plans based on each patient’s condition and unique circumstances to relieve pain, improve mobility and mental space, and improve your overall health.

Keep reading to learn more of what what you can do about leg cramps and charley horses.

Leg cramps at night causing a woman dressed in pajamas to wake up and massage her leg in bed.

Leg Cramps at Night

Don’t Let Leg Cramps at Night Keep You Up

Leg cramps at night can occur at any age, but they are most common among older adults, women, pregnant women, dehydrated individuals, and those with certain medical conditions such as nerve damage and muscle fatigue.

The most common cause of bad calf cramps at night is aging. Nearly every adult over age 50 experiences a leg cramp at least once every two months, and one-third of people over 60 will suffer one every two months.

Night leg cramps can be caused by a variety of factors, but there is no one definitive cause.


Dehydration and Leg Cramps at Night

Leg cramps at night are almost guaranteed as a result of dehydration. The muscles may be more susceptible to cramping as a result. Dehydration can also cause an imbalance in sodium levels in the blood, which can also cause muscle cramps.

During dehydration, your body pulls water from your muscles. The muscles can become more susceptible to cramping as a result. Dehydration can also cause electrolyte imbalances.

In order for muscles to function properly, electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium are needed. Muscle cramps while sleeping can occur when these electrolytes are out of balance.

Blood can also become thicker when dehydrated. Bad calf cramps at night can also occur as a result of this reduced blood flow to the muscles. It is important to stay hydrated if you are experiencing night leg cramps, and you should also stay hydrated throughout the day, especially with water. Coconut water or sports drinks may help replace the electrolytes your body needs.


The Enigma Behind Low Levels of Electrolytes

An electrolyte is a mineral that conducts electricity — and its function and level is highly correlated to leg cramps at night. In addition to contraction and relaxation of muscles, they perform a variety of other functions in the body. It is possible to get muscle cramps when electrolytes are low in the body.

An electrolyte’s role in muscle function can be summarized as follows:

  • The movement of fluids in and out of cells is regulated by potassium. Muscle contraction and relaxation can also be controlled by it.
  • Muscle contraction and relaxation are also facilitated by magnesium. As well as regulating nerve function, it also helps to improve blood flow.
  • In order for muscles to contract, calcium is necessary. As well as strengthening the bones, it helps to keep muscles healthy.

As you can see, muscles may be unable to contract and relax properly if electrolytes levels in the body are low, with cramping resulting. In this case, treatment for nighttime leg cramps should be explored. Muscles can also be more sensitive to pain when electrolytes are low. Cramping can become more painful as a result.

Muscle fatigue can also be caused by low electrolyte levels and may result in muscle cramps while sleeping.


Leg Cramps at Night from Nerve Damage

Nerve damage that interferes with signals sent to your muscles can cause leg cramps at night. Because they’re damaged, they cannot send the correct signals.

Nerve damage can prevent nerves from sending the signal to relax muscles. Muscles can contract involuntarily due to this, resulting in cramps. Muscles can also become more sensitive to pain when they suffer nerve damage. Intense cramps can result from this.

Nerve damage can also cause chronic muscle fatigue. Consequently, bad calf cramps at night are more likely to occur.

Even worse: Diabetes, peripheral artery disease (PAD), spinal stenosis, and sciatica are some of the conditions that can cause nerve damage and leg cramps at night. Cramping can result from diabetes damage to the nerves in the feet and legs. As a result of PAD, the arteries in the legs narrow, which in turn reduces blood flow to the muscles and causes cramps. Spinal Stenosis (When the spinal canal narrows) can compress nerves. This effect can also lead to cramps.

We wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention sciatica. It causes pain that radiates down the leg from the lower back, caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve, which can also cause cramping.


A Deeper Analysis of Muscle Fatigue and Cramping

Muscle fatigue can cause leg cramps at night. This makes the muscles more prone to a slew of other conditions. And unfortunately, they can last all night, in the worst of cases. Fatigue also makes muscles less able to contract and relax. There is a possibility this will result in a muscle cramp as well.

In fact, muscle fatigue increases your chances of experiencing tightness or cramping. Nerve pressure can cause bad calf cramps at night.

Muscle fatigue also increases the likelihood of knotting and muscle cramps while sleeping. It’s also possible for these knots to exert pressure on the nerves, resulting in cramps. As a result of fatigue, muscles are less likely to relax as easily when stretched.


Stretching the Muscle for Leg Cramps at Night

Stretching can often prevent leg cramps at night. As a result of stretching, the muscles loosen up and become more flexible, which prevents them from becoming tight or cramping. However, that’s not the entire story.

Stretching muscles can also worsen muscle cramps. In this case, stretching can make it more difficult for the muscle to relax, due to its already contracted state. The best thing you can do if you have a leg cramp is to relax your muscles. You can use a gentle massage or heat to relax the affected muscle. If the muscle is not too painful, you can stretch it.

You should consider exploring treatment for nighttime leg cramps if the cramp is severe or does not go away after a few minutes. Having cramps could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Nonetheless, the following tips will help you prevent bad calf cramps at night:

  • Make sure you stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, especially water. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps.
  • Make sure you eat a balanced diet. Eat a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Electrolytes are important for muscle function, so these foods are good sources.
  • Regularly stretch your legs. It’s beneficial to stretch the muscles in order to loosen them and make them more flexible. Doing this can prevent muscle cramps.
  • Don’t sit or stand for long periods of time. Leg muscles can become cramped after sitting or standing for a long time.
  • Make sure you wear comfortable shoes. A tight pair of shoes can cause cramps in your legs, as they tend to put pressure on the muscles.


Try These Too!

In addition to these above remedies for muscle cramps while sleeping, you can also try:

  • Not drinking alcohol and caffeine before bed. These substances can cause dehydration and cramping.
  • Gently stretching the muscle. You can also apply heat or gently massage the muscle.


Talk to a Specialist About Leg Cramps at Night

Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk of leg cramps at night — especially if you’re taking medications that can cause them. You may experience leg cramps if you are taking certain medications, such as diuretics or statins.

Underlying medical conditions, such as vessel insufficiency, may be the cause of your cramps. This is especially true if you suffer from frequent or severe leg cramps. An expert in pain management usually only needs a brief consultation and diagnosis before performing vessel ablation, sclerotherapy, or another minimally invasive procedure.

The best course of action is to see your doctor if you suffer from bad calf cramps at night on a regular basis or if they become severe enough to make walking or standing difficult. Your doctor will most likely ask questions about your medical history, medications, and recent changes in your activity level. As well as asking about your diet, they might also ask how much fluid you consume daily.

Seek emergency medical attention if a leg cramp lasts more than 10 minutes or is unbearably painful. Additionally, it could be poisonous or infectious if the cramping occurs after touching substances. Leg cramps are usually not a cause for concern and occur occasionally. Exercise or long periods of sitting may cause them. Pregnancy and aging may also increase them.

Gentle stretching and massaging of the muscle can relieve the pain from muscle cramps while sleeping. You should consult a doctor if you experience leg cramps regularly or if the cramp lasts for a long time. You shouldn’t hesitate to seek treatment for nighttime leg cramps. The condition could be a sign of an underlying health condition.


Wellness and Pain Can Help

A range of options for treating leg cramps at night are available at Wellness and Pain. We offer conservative treatments, routine visits, and minimally invasive quick-recovery procedures. We can keep you free of problems by providing lifestyle education and home care advice to help you avoid and manage issues, quickly relieving the inhibiting lifestyle conditions when complications arise.

At Wellness and Pain, we personalize patient care plans based on each patient’s condition and unique circumstances to relieve pain, improve mobility and mental space, and improve your overall health.

Keep reading to learn more of what what you can do about leg cramps and charley horses.

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