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Nighttime Leg Cramps Mostly Just a Nuisance

By Kathy Hubbard
“Has anyone had any leg cramps at night? I have had them now for almost a week. I go to bed and sleep four hours and wake up with terrible leg pains or cramps. I have to get out of bed and walk through the house. When I come back to bed they start hurting again. Last night after I got up once I propped two pillows at the bottom of the bed and elevated my legs I got some relief, but no sleep.”
Poor Betty. She’s the one who wrote that on a popular health-centric website forum. It’s really double poor Betty, because the advice she got had few options that are medically proven to be effective. Let’s see, one said, “put a bar of Dial soap under your sheets, if that doesn’t work try another brand.”
Sure. That’s medically sound advice. Other suggestions included taking a couple of teaspoons of apple cider vinegar; wearing socks to bed; drinking tonic water or taking quinine pills; eating a banana or an avocado. Whatever works is good, right?
But, probably the best advice Betty got was to drink plenty of fluids. WebMD lists that at the top of tips for preventing muscle cramps.
Let’s take a step back and see what we’re talking about. Often called a charley horse (it’s from American baseball jargon that dates back to 1886) a muscle cramp is a strong, painful contraction or tightening of a muscle that comes on suddenly and lasts from a few seconds to several minutes.
Nighttime leg cramps are usually sudden spasms that happen in the calf muscle, thigh or foot that often occur just as you are falling asleep or waking up. Often the cause of leg cramps is unknown.
They can be brought on by overusing muscles while exercising; exposure to cold temperatures particularly cold water; medical conditions such as blood flow problems, kidney disease, thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis. Standing on hard surfaces or sitting for long periods of time may put your legs in awkward positions when you sleep.
Being dehydrated, not having enough potassium, calcium and other minerals in your blood and taking certain medicines such as diuretics, statins, steroids, birth control and antipsychotics may cause charley horses.
An occasional leg cramp is most likely nothing to worry about. When they occur regularly and prevent you from doing your regular activities and/or sleeping properly it’s time to check in with your healthcare provider. They might be a symptom of something else.
Tips for stopping a muscle cramp include stretching and massaging the muscle; walking around and jiggling your leg; taking a warm shower or bath to relax the muscle, and trying a heating pad or ice pack. If the pain is intense take an over-the-counter pain medicine.
WebMD also says that if you think a medicine is causing the muscle cramps that you should call the prescribing medico before you take another dose.
“The medicine may need to be stopped or changed, or the dose may need to be adjusted. If you are taking any medicine not prescribed by a healthcare professional, stop taking it. Talk to your doctor if you think you need to continue taking the medicine,” WebMD advises.
Besides drinking plenty of fluids, limiting your alcohol intake, eating a healthy, calcium, potassium and magnesium rich diet, WebMD suggests a regular stretching regime.
“Stretch your muscles every day, especially before and after exercise and at bedtime. Don’t suddenly increase the amount of exercise you get. Increase your exercise a little each week.”
Betty finally sought medical attention and has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Hopefully her new medications, diet and exercise plan will stop her muscle cramps.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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