Are leg cramps interrupting your daily life? It’s actually more likely that leg cramps interrupt your good night’s sleep.T here are dozens of reasons your legs could tighten up or cramp over long periods of inactivity (like sleeping). Some of the less worrisome causes include:
- Electrolyte (especially potassium) imbalance
- Medication side effects
Each of these can be remedied relatively simply and quickly. However, sometimes your cramping legs may be a symptom of an underlying disorder like peripheral artery disease, diabetes, or chronic venous insufficiency. These are much more serious, having to do with improper circulation of your blood through your limbs.
WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENS TO CAUSE LEG CRAMPS?
Muscles naturally contract and relax as we use them during our normal daily activities. When a muscle contracts and then fails to relax, the outcome may be a painful muscle cramp. These are commonly noted in the lower extremities. Everyone has occasional night cramps, which are not usually associated with a serious underlying condition. If you are having more frequent and severe muscle cramps, though, these symptoms should be evaluated by a physician.
A muscular cramp can occur any time your muscles fail to relax naturally during use. Our muscles contract and relax to move our body, so the relaxation of muscles should typically be experienced involuntarily. However, if the mechanism to release the muscle contraction malfunctions for any reason, the muscle remains tightly contracted. This gripping sensation can be quite painful and not allow you to move any part of the surrounding body parts.
A leg cramp may recur over and over in a short period of time before it fіnаllу resolves.The cramp may involve a part of the leg muscle, the entire leg muscle, or several muscles that usually act together, like those that flex adjacent fingers.
Muscle cramps in general can be quite harmless. In fact, almost everybody experiences a cramp at some time in their life.
However, if you are experiencing regular leg cramps that are increasingly frequent and disturbing your daily routine or nighttime rest, it’s important to see a doctor.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR ABOUT MY LEG CRAMPS?
Problematic leg cramps interrupt your daily routine, but more often, serious leg cramps usually occur at night, ruining your rest. The sensation can last for few minutes – in fact the average duration is 9 minutes. This can result in your muscle feeling tender for up to 24 hours after.
If your leg cramps come on regularly during exercise, it could be a symptom of underlying vascular issues. If you have muscle cramping while walking short distances, but recover with rest, this may indicate arterial disease. Today, doctors have many minimally-invasive ways to test for arterial disease.
Nighttime leg cramps are one of the common symptoms of vein disease. If your leg veins are experiencing reflux, it means that the valves in your veins that keep blood flowing in a single direction are malfunctioning. Blood can pool and clot in pockets of your veins, causing pain, cramps, discoloration, and even swelling. Since the ‘used’ blood that is filled with waste products like carbon dioxide is not being carried away, your muscles cramp and feel additional pressure.
The symptoms of venous disease range from very obvious bulging veins, ankle swelling, skin changes, blood clots, bleeding veins and spider veins to only subtle symptoms of mild cramping or itching.
For these reasons, it’s important for you to check with your doctor about potential causes of your leg cramps.
Suffering with undiagnosed vein disease or venous reflux could be the root cause of your restless nights and painful days.
Many times, vein disease can be detected with a simple ultrasound and treated in as little as 30 minutes to an hour, quite painlessly. See our full list of Vein Treatments to learn more about treatments that range from compression and elevation to surgical removal of diseased veins.
WHO ARE MOST COMMONLY AFFECTED BY LEG CRAMPS DUE TO VEIN DISEASE?
- Females often suffer from Chronic Venous Insufficiency more frequently than males.
- Most sufferers are over age 45.
- Pregnancy increases risk of blood clots in the legs.
- Obesity substantially raises your risk of blood clots and vein disease.
- Chronic Venous Insufficiency can be hereditary if your family has a history of the disease.
- Some individuals simply have a personal history of blood clots.
- Smokers are more likely to have circulation problems and vein damage than non-smokers.
- Persons with high blood pressure can experience damaged veins.
- Inactivity and lack of routine cardiovascular exercise contributes to muscle cramping as well as circulation problems.
- Between 50 tо 60 percent of adults and 7 percent оf children аrе likely tо еxреrіеnсе leg сrаmрѕ, and the lіkеlіhооd increases with age.
ARE THERE SELF-CARE TREATMENTS FOR LEG CRAMPS?
If you’re only just beginning to experience leg cramps, there are a few ways of relieving the pain and tightness.
- Increase your water intake.
- Increase your vitamin and mineral intake: calcium, magnesium, and potassium deficiency often cause muscle cramps.
- Develop good stretching habits every day to release muscle tension.
- Increase your routine exercise: simply walking for 20-30 minutes a day can significantly reduce leg spasms and cramps.
- Massaging a cramped muscle can help release the tension.
- Try to pull the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg remains in a straightened position. This will also help in easing a back thigh (hamstring) cramp. For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try to pull your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.
- Using a heat pad on affected muscle groups can help release and sooth a cramp.
- Soaking in a warm bath can sooth cramps.
- Applying ice can sooth muscle soreness resulting from prolonged cramps.
HOW CAN MY DOCTOR DIAGNOSE THE CAUSE OF MY LEG CRAMPS?
Sometimes, muscle cramps can be difficult to diagnose – some cramps are completely natural and resolve on their own. However, if your cramps are chronic and interrupting your quality of life, your doctor can perform a physical examination.
Blood tests can check your vitamin and mineral levels to ensure the right balance for muscle function and circulation. Your thyroid and kidney function can be checked with the same blood test to ensure proper functioning levels.
A test called an electromyography can specifically test for muscle abnormalities and activity. This test involves placing electrodes along the muscles to be tested and observing/interpreting the output from a recording machine while you move your legs according to the doctor’s instructions.
A test called a myelography can give your doctor a clear image of your spinal cord to ensure proper health and function. This test involves receiving an injection of contrast dye before receiving a series of xray/radiograph images.
An ultrasound can be used to evaluate the condition of your leg veins for various types of vein disease.