What Causes a Leg Cramp?
Cramps are unpleasant, often painful sensations caused by contraction or over-shortening of muscles. Leg cramps are painful feeling of tightness and tension in the muscles of the legs. Also known as ‘charley horse’, leg cramps usually occur when the leg muscles suddenly and forcefully contract. There are three prime areas where these cramps mainly occur: calf (crossing the ankle and knee), the hamstring (crossing the knee and hip) and the quadriceps (also crossing the knee and hip). The cramps usually last for less than a minute, but sometimes may last for a few minutes before the muscle contraction descends. In some patients, the leg cramps occur primarily at night, and can awaken the patient from sleep.
The most common cause for leg cramps is excessive dehydration because of insufficient intake of water. As we know, water helps in transporting minerals, vitamins, and other substances throughout our body. Hence low water intake can cause deficient supply of nutrients to different parts of the body. Hydration of muscles is essential for muscles to function properly and to avoid cramping or muscle twitches during sleep or after exercise. Stretching can relax muscle fibers. When working out, a good post work out stretch routine can help relax muscles and prevent cramps. Make sure you cool down after exercising, and do not exercise vigorously just prior to sleep. Exercising in an unusual manner like over-exercise or different exercise positions can also be the reason for leg cramps. Gradually build up an exercise program, and try to avoid sudden increases in activity. Patients who weigh more are more prone to developing leg cramps, they might not be obese but the weight is high.
Cramps can be caused by overexertion or low calcium level in blood especially for adolescents, who need calcium for both blood and bone maturing. Calcium deficiency causes muscle tremors and twitching which further leads to leg cramps. Potassium and magnesium are essential minerals which help in muscle activities and maintain the body fluids balance. They also help in controlling muscles and serve as co-factors in muscle building. Hence, deficiency of these two minerals can also lead to painful and sudden leg cramps.
Exposure to large changes in temperature hyperflexion and hypoxia can cause leg cramp. Muscle cramps may also be a symptom or complication of pregnancy, kidney disease, thyroid disease (hypokalemia or hypocalcemia), restless leg syndrome, varicose vein, and multiple sclerosis.
Some persons also experience painful nocturnal or night leg cramps which occur at night while a person is sleeping. They cause sleeping disturbances, predominantly affecting middle-aged or elderly individuals, mainly due to poor blood circulation in the limbs.