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Leg cramp

                                   February 2010  

 Those leg cramps that wake you up

leg crampLeg cramps are far more common than most people realise. They can occur at any age but they are far more likely in older people. Around one in three people over 60 suffers regularly from leg cramps and that goes up to half of all people over 80.

On top of that, as we get older, leg cramps are not just the occasional problem; nearly half of all sufferers say they have leg cramps at least three times a week. Some people have to endure them every day.

Because leg cramps usually only last a short time, and because afterwards we are not injured, sufferers don’t always receive appropriate sympathy; but when the cramp is taking place, the pain can be incredibly severe.

Leg cramp is due to a muscle spasm when a muscle suddenly contracts too much. This usually occurs in the calf muscle at the back of the lower leg and behind the knee. Occasionally the small muscles of the feet can sometimes be affected.

The cramping pain usually only lasts a few minutes, sometimes for just a few seconds or it can last up to perhaps ten minutes. The severity of the pain can vary from person to person and also from episode to episode, and afterwards the leg muscle can be tender for a while.

Leg cramps are particularly disturbing because they usually occur at night or when you are resting; so disturbed sleep can be a side effect of leg cramp.

The annoying thing about leg cramps is that even today the causes are not totally agreed upon. One explanation that many believe to be the true cause is that cramps occur when a muscle is already in a shortened position. If the muscle is then stimulated further to contract, it could cause it to go into spasm. This fits in with the night time timing of leg cramps because many of us lie with our knees slightly bent and the feet pointing slightly downwards. In this position the calf muscle is relatively shortened and therefore may be prone to cramp. This explanation also fits in with the fact that stretching can help cure the problem.

However, there are certainly other causes as well, which can include side-effects from certain drugs including diuretics and statins, dehydration and also over-exertion of muscles. Other aspects that might contribute towards leg cramps include an under-active thyroid gland and excess alcohol.

Leg cramps are certainly not an exact science!

The key thing of course is what to do about them. Well, prevention is the first thing. Stretching your calf muscles regularly throughout the day might help. Three times a day for about five minutes each session is recommended, including one stretching exercise just before bedtime. You can feel if you are stretching your calf muscles, but one good way is to stand about 60 – 90 cm from a wall and keep your feet including your heels flat on the floor. Then bend forwards and lean on the wall; you will feel your calf muscles stretch. It may take two weeks or longer to notice any improvement in leg cramps, and this is no guaranteed cure, but it may help.

If you have cramp, painkillers won’t usually help as they take too long to work. Stretching is definitely the best way to try and ease the cramp. In severe cases, quinine is used which has a good record of reducing the number and also the severity of leg cramps. But there are side effects and some people should not take quinine, so this is definitely something you need to talk to your doctor about.

If in any doubt about any of the information covered in health related articles and it's relevance for you, consult your GP.

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