Cramping legs: the cause and how to ease them

If you have ever been woken by sore, aching and painful legs you’ll know how debilitating leg cramp can be. One in three over 60s have struggled with leg pain from time to time, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence.

Here’s how they’re caused, how you can prevent them, and how to relieve the pain.

What causes leg cramps?

Leg cramps can be caused by many conditions, from dehydration, up to something as serious as kidney disease, according to physical therapist Matthew Hyland, president of the New York Physical Therapy Association. “Cramps often result from vigorous exercise, trauma to the muscle, or keeping the leg in an awkward position for too long, such as sitting in a crowded theater. Other causes can include medications such as birth control, diuretics (which are often prescribed for people with high blood pressure) and steroids. A lack of potassium or calcium can also be the underlying cause, as well as cold weather”.

Leg cramps are often confused with RLS (restless leg syndrome) however they are not linked. RLS is a different and more serious, chronic condition where you feel discomfort and persistent throbbing and pulling sensations in your legs.

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How can you relieve the pain?

There are a few different ways you can soothe a sore leg that is cramped. While it may be painful, getting up and moving around may actually ease cramping of the muscle. Stretching and massaging the muscle also can calm down a clenched calf, as can analgesic or heat balm. It’s not recommended to take painkillers because they don’t help quickly enough, although it may make you feel better if the muscle tenderness is prolonged. If cramps persist for more than 5 to 10 minutes, or occur more than a couple of times a week, consult your doctor.

How can you prevent leg cramps?

It is crucial that as we age, we continue to exercise and strengthen our bodies, as they are not as resilient as they used to be. Keeping your fluids up is also incredibly important for not only preventing cramps, but also overall health and wellbeing. We struggle to retain water like we did when we were younger so it’s important to drink water even if you don’t feel thirsty.  You can also try magnesium with your doctor’s and pharmacist’s advice.

Stretching exercises can help to reduce the severity and number of cramps. Give them a try if you can, for about five minutes three times per day before bed. All you need is a wall to lean on. Stand about 60-90 cm from a wall whilst keeping the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Then bend forward and lean on the wall to feel a stretch in your calf muscles.

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Your position when you rest is also important to preventing your muscles cramping. Here are a few tips from Patient:

  • Using a pillow to prop your feet up in bed while sleeping on your back.
  • Hang your feet over the end of the bed while sleeping on your front.
  • Keep blankets loose at the foot of the bed to prevent toes and feet from pointing downwards during sleep.

Tell us, do you suffer from leg cramps? How do you relieve the pain?