Treating night-time muscle cramps
Miriam is a 58-year-old businesswoman who lives in Kingston. She says she can't get a good night's sleep because of muscle contractions to her feet and calves most nights. They often recur during the same night and have her walking around her room and beating on her feet and calves at intervals throughout the night. She is very active during the daytime and does not experience any daytime cramps. Miriam asks what she can do to reduce night-time leg cramps and sleep better!
A muscle cramp is a strong, painful contraction and tightening of muscles, usually the leg muscles in those who suffer with night-time leg muscle contractions. Night-time leg cramps tend to occur just as the person is going off to sleep or just on awakening. It most often affects the calves, but can also affect the thighs and feet. They can last from a few seconds to several minutes.
They cause severe discomfort and can be associated with muscle weakness afterwards. They tend to occur frequently and are not associated with any particular cause. However overuse, muscle strain, and dehydration as well as holding the leg in one position too long are known causes of muscle cramps. Some other causes of leg muscle cramps include:
• Poor blood supply to the leg and foot muscles due to arteriosclerosis (narrowing of the blood vessels in the calves and feet). This can be due to diseases like diabetes and dyslipidemia (high blood cholesterol) or to over-exercising, where not enough blood is circulated to the area to keep up with the oxygen needs.
• Nerve compression in the spine (lumbar stenosis) can also produce leg cramps which worsen with walking. Walking in a slightly flexed position (like you were pushing a shopping cart) can delay onset of these cramps.
• Mineral lack. Lack of calcium, magnesium or potassium in the diet can result in muscle cramps. People who take diuretics for control of hypertension or heart failure may experience this side effect.
Risk factors which might cause an increase in muscle cramps are:
• Ageing. As older people have less muscle mass, the remaining muscle can more easily become overstressed.
• Pregnancy. Cramping muscles are well known to occur during pregnancy due to decreased amounts of minerals such as calcium and magnesium as they are being used in increased amounts.
• Dehydration. Sweating, which removes both water and body salts, can result in leg cramps.
• Medical conditions such as diabetes, liver disease, nerve diseases or thyroid dysfunction, kidney disease, peripheral vascular disease or multiple sclerosis can also cause muscle cramps.
• Use of medications such as birth-control pills, statins, diuretics (water pills) and steroids are associated with increased muscle cramps.
To avoid muscle cramps:
• Perform stretching exercises, particularly to the calves before going to sleep.
• Take vitamin B complex supplements.
• Take magnesium supplements.
• Ensure good hydration levels throughout the day and evening.
• Prescribed muscle relaxants may help.
• Wear shoes with proper support during the daytime.
• Do not tuck in the legs tightly under sheeting at nights.
To stop a muscle contraction:
• Stretch and massage the muscle.
• Walk around and shake the leg.
• Do a calf stretch. Stand two feet from a wall, lean forward against the wall keeping the affected leg, calf, heel and foot on the ground. Bend up the knee of the other leg.
• Take a warm shower or bath, or place a heating pad on the contracted muscle.
• Contrarily use an ice pack on the area. This helps some individuals.
• Take over-the-counter Advil, Tylenol or Motrin.
• Drink a sports drink such as Gatorade. Drink plenty of fluids otherwise!
• If a medication is causing the cramps, then contact your doctor to have it changed or adjusted, but do not take the matter into your own hands.
Essentially, you are advised to drink plenty of water, limit alcohol - which is dehydrating - and ensure a diet rich in healthy foods containing the minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium. Take a daily multivitamin supplement as well. Magnesium is a great addition as it loosens muscles, causes increased calcium absorption, blocks pain receptors, decreases inflammation in the body and relaxes blood vessels, thereby restoring a healthy circulation.
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