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Leg cramps

Most people get the occasional leg cramp. Mainly they are harmless and the cause isn’t known.

It’s basically a pain in your leg when muscles contract, tighten and harden.

Leg cramps usually affect the calf but can happen in the thigh or feet.

The cramp can be fleeting lasting a few seconds or a few minutes. You may feel tenderness in the muscle for hours afterwards.

Leg cramps are most common at night when you’re in bed. The pain is often sharp enough to wake you up.

Causes of leg cramps

There are two types of leg cramp, those that happen for no apparent reason (idiopathic leg cramps) and those that are a symptom or complication of a health condition (secondary leg cramps).

You are more likely to experience leg cramps when you are pregnant, especially in the later stages.

If you have done a lot of exercise and over exerted yourself you may be more prone to leg cramps.

Certain types of medications can lead to leg cramps, for example statins and diuretics.

Liver disease, neurological conditions and some infections may cause leg cramps.

Treating leg cramps

If you think your medication may be causing the cramps go and see your GP and ask for advice. They may be able to switch you to a different medication.

If cramps are very frequent and affecting your sleep you may need some tests to rule out any underlying conditions.

Exercise can help with leg cramps.

Exercises including calf or thigh stretches during the day may help to stop night time cramps.

When you are in the grip of a cramp try doing a calf stretch to lengthen the muscle. Alternatively try massaging or rubbing the affected area.

Very rarely quinine is prescribed by a GP as a treatment for leg cramps. It can have side effects like ringing in your ears and hot flushes. If you take too much quinine the side effects can be very dangerous including blindness and death so it’s only prescribed in rare circumstances when leg cramps severely affect quality of life.

Preventing leg cramps

There’s no proof that it works but sleeping on your back with your feet propped upwards with a pillow may help stop leg cramps.

Sleeping on your front with your feet hanging over the edge of the bed may also be of benefit.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 21, 2014

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