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Leg Cramps

The most common type of leg cramp is the charley-horse.

Massage is a reliable way to relieve the pain of leg cramps. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Massage is a reliable way to relieve the pain of leg cramps.

Leg cramps are the sensations felt from involuntary muscle contractions typically located in one or both calves. Leg cramps are sometimes sudden and are often felt at night or while at rest. While leg cramps are relatively harmless, discomfort may range from hours of a dull ache relieved by constant movement to sharp pain so severe that it briefly inhibits movement.

Causes of Leg Cramps

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicines and the National Institutes of Health, causes of the common leg cramp include such physical triggers as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance due to lack of potassium, sodium, calcium or magnesium in the blood; medications such as diuretics or statins that cause loss of fluids or lower cholesterol; and muscle fatigue from strain or overuse. People who consume large amounts of alcohol or caffeine are more susceptible to developing leg cramps. Additionally, leg cramps are more likely in someone diagnosed with diabetes or neuromuscular disorders like Parkinson's disease.

Charley Horse

A charley horse or nocturnal leg cramp is the most common type of leg cramp. These cramps are characterized by sharp pain, which comes on suddenly but is usually short lived. The pain is intense enough to wake a person from sleeping. Leg cramps may attack anyone, although they are more common in older people. The exact causes or triggers of this type of leg cramps are unknown.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Another type of leg cramping sensation, called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), is actually a chronic neurological disorder in which the body's nervous system causes a person to feel twitching or pulling in his or her legs. There is also a strong urge to keep the legs in constant motion. This urge increases later in the day, which leads to sleep deprivation and has been linked to sleep disorders. The Restless Leg Foundation states that as much as 10 percent of the population suffers from RLS. This disorder affects both young and old, men and women, and all races alike. It can be hereditary. In July of 2007, researchers discovered a gene variant for RLS. In some cases, RLS is only temporary: it occurs in up to 25 percent of pregnant women but typically subsides after pregnancy. Other conditions that may increase a person's chances of getting RLS include anemia, end stage renal failure patients requiring dialysis, nerve damage in hands or feet and Attention Deficit Disorder. Some medications may also make RLS more prevalent, including antihistamines found in cold and allergy medication, medications that prevent or relieve dizziness, anti-nausea medications, antidepressants and psychiatric medications that treat bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and other serious disorders.

More Serious Leg Conditions

It is important to note that certain leg pains may be mistaken for leg cramps. For example, leg cramps should not be numb, red or tender to touch. Those types of pains are normally caused by atherosclerosis, blood clots, bone infection, inflammation of the joints such as arthritis, nerve damage or varicose veins. Less often those pains may be caused by tumors or cysts, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, sciatic nerve damage or a slipped capital femoral epiphysis. Medical treatment is recommended for these conditions.

Coping With Leg Cramps

Home remedies can often help prevent common leg cramps. People who suffer regularly should make sure they are well hydrated and getting their daily recommended intake of vitamins. If necessary, supplement key vitamins and minerals, such as potassium, sodium, calcium, B-12 and iron, through daily pills. If the leg cramps are a result of overuse, rest and leg elevation will increase blood flow and help relieve the cramping. A regimen of stretching, massage, heat and ice on the leg muscles routinely before and after strenuous activities also helps in the prevention of nocturnal leg cramps. A sufficient warm-up and cool-down period is suggested when exercising. If medication may be causing leg cramps, check with a physician before discontinuing.

When leg cramps strike, the best efforts to ease the pain quickly are to flex toes upwards and hold for 30 seconds, massage the affected muscle and get up and walk around. If pain persists, take an over-the-counter muscle relaxer or anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen.

In the case of RLS, suffers may want to keep a diary to find a correlation between their daily activities, habits or diet and the occurrence of attacks. It is possible to ease the frequency of attacks by adding or eliminating certain items from a person's lifestyle, which may be causing the RLS reaction. The RLS Foundation offers a listing of local support groups, as well as a virtual support group for those who suffer.

Overall, a moderate lifestyle with healthy habits is the best form of prevention. Effective treatment depends on the cause. A doctor may prescribe prescription medication for severe cases or as a last resort once a diagnosis has been made. Such medications include dopamine, an anti-seizure medicine like Gabapentin, or quinine, an anti-inflammatory. ABC News reports that quinine was regularly used as treatment for cramps until the FDA warned against its dangerous cardiac side effects. Physical therapy may be prescribed for patients with leg cramps resulting from nerve damage.

Seeking Medical Advice

Primary care physicians are capable of diagnosing and treating leg cramps and RLS, though some patients may need to consult with a neurologist or RLS specialist. Seek medical attention if the leg is swollen or red, bruised, cold and pale or if the sufferer has a fever. Medical attention is also advisable if home remedies do not ease the condition to a tolerable level allowing normal daily activity. These symptoms may indicate problems more serious than common leg cramps.

A doctor will examine the legs, hips, back, knees, ankles and feet while asking a series of questions about the patient's medical history and the origin and intensity of the leg cramp pain. The physician may also use diagnostic tests to make an official diagnosis. Those tests may include an arteriogram, blood tests, bone biopsy, bone scan, ultrasound, MRI or X-ray.

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