Leg Muscle Cramps and Spasms
You’ve probably had leg muscle cramps and spasm symptoms your entire life. However, now that you’ve gotten older, you’re probably noticing that those unwanted cramps and spasms are occurring more frequently. Not only that, but pain and discomfort are likely to happen with greater intensity later in life, particularly in your calves.
Unfortunately, these leg muscle cramps are probably happening the most when you’re lying down to rest at night or when you want to be more active. Fortunately, there may be relief in sight for you and some ways to minimize your symptoms. But, first, it helps to learn more about muscle spasms and leg cramps to get a better understanding of how you can prevent them.
Are leg cramps and muscle spasms the same thing?
Not quite, but almost. A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of the muscles in your legs. You can also get spasms in other areas of your body as well. The involuntary contraction or muscle spasm can be excruciating and will usually only last a few seconds.
It becomes a muscle cramp when the discomfort and pain last for more than 15 seconds or so. In essence, a spasm leads to a cramp if it persists. They’re almost the same thing. Cramps just last longer.
Symptoms of muscle spasms and leg cramps
If you get leg muscle cramps or spasms, it will most likely occur in your calf, the arch of your foot, or your thigh. When you’ve had a cramp in your calf before, you probably referred to it as a Charley horse.
Some typical signs or symptoms of muscle spasms in legs are:
Mild twitching to severe pain.
Severe muscle spasms will likely progress to cramps.
Tightening of the muscle.
Your muscle may also be tender where the muscle has tightened.
Hardness of the muscle experiencing a spasm.
If you feel the painful muscle, it will feel hard to the touch.
Visible distortion of the muscle that’s spasming.
For instance, your toe might twist over to one side or even bend upward at 90 degrees.
Single attack or recurring attacks.
Your spasm or cramp can go away, and it may be a while before you experience another. Or, you may have quite a few attacks that come and go before going away.
Impairment of activity. Your muscle spasms or leg cramps might cause you to do less.
For instance, if you enjoy walking, frequent spasms and cramps could make you reluctant to walk as much. You may fear that an attack happens in the middle of your midday stroll.
Soreness of the muscle after an acute spasm or cramp.
Even after the muscle spasm or leg cramp goes away, your muscle is likely to be sore for quite a while.
Muscle spasm symptoms and leg cramps aren’t pleasant to experience. They can significantly interfere with your daily activities and cause you great discomfort. That’s why it’s so important to find a cause for leg muscle cramps so you can perhaps find relief as well.
What causes leg cramps and muscle spasms?
Sometimes leg cramps are just part of the aging process. The majority of adults have leg muscle cramps on occasion. If they happen infrequently, there’s probably not a cause for concern.
However, if leg cramps and muscle spasms happen often enough to disrupt your life or cause you great discomfort, there’s likely a reason for it.
Some of the risk factors and causes for your leg discomfort may be:
Some diuretics ("water pills" that remove fluid from the body), such as Lasix or furosemide, can affect your electrolyte levels and cause muscle spasms and cramps. According to the FDA, the following statins contain specific warnings on the package inserts about muscle pain and cramp: atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), or simvastatin (Zocor), . If you start having muscle spasms or leg cramps soon after beginning a new medication, ask your doctor if your medication can be causing it.
The medications that cause electrolyte imbalance can disturb your magnesium, potassium, and sodium levels and lead to cramping.
When your body is lacking its optimal fluid level, it’s dehydrated. This means your body has lost the water it needs to perform its tasks. Usually, when you’re dehydrated, you’re also low on electrolytes. It’s important to maintain adequate hydration to prevent yourself from becoming dehydrated.
Diabetes can lead to a variety of complications including nerve damage called diabetic neuropathy. Also, if you’ve undergone treatment for cancer, you may have nerve damage as a result of your treatment. This can cause leg pain symptoms that can lead to spasms and cramps.
Certain health conditions.
Conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, peripheral artery disease (PAD) and high cholesterol can all damage the blood vessels in the legs and feet, resulting in poor blood flow and a lack of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and nerves. With a lack of oxygen and nutrients muscles and nerves cannot function well, resulting in pain and cramp. Other conditions such as hypothyroidism, heart disease, , osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers’s, and kidney disease can also all cause muscle spasms and leg cramps. Many of the medications used to treat your condition may also affect the balance of fluid and electrolytes in your body. Other times, cramps and spasms are symptoms of the disease.
While your leg cramps and muscle spasms can happen anytime, 60% of adults experience leg cramps frequently at night, when they’re trying to rest.
Many of the illnesses that can cause this type of leg pain are more common in older people. Also, many seniors are on medications that are known to be common culprits of cramping and spasms in the legs.
Sometimes, nocturnal leg muscle cramps are simply due to muscle fatigue. Only your doctor can determine the reason for your symptoms.
When to see your doctor?
While muscle spasms and leg cramps are often par for the course as we get older, there are a few useful clues that perhaps a trip to your doctor is warranted.
- Have you started a new medication, or are you on one of the medications known to cause leg muscle cramps?
- Do you have a health condition that can be causing your painful muscle spasms or cramping?
- Do you have problems functioning because of your leg cramps or muscle spasms?
- Are your symptoms preventing you from doing what you want to do?
- Is your cramping occurring frequently, or is it severe?
- Are you having night cramps that are disrupting important sleep?
- Do you also have muscle weakness that accompanies your cramps or spasms?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the above questions, a visit to your doctor is the next step. Only a qualified physician can determine the cause for your leg symptoms and advise you on how you can best find relief.
Prevent Muscle Cramps and Leg Spasms
The best way to address leg cramps and spasms is through preventative measures. Leg muscle cramps are preventable in many cases. And, many of the self-help measures you can undertake for prevention also double as ways to relieve cramps and spasms when they do occur.
Try these supportive measures:
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Unless you have a health condition that limits your fluid intake (check with your physician), hydration is a great start in preventing or relieving your leg symptoms. If you’re having your morning cup of coffee or two and not drinking much beyond that, it’s not enough. Drink plenty of water. Drinking fluids such as coconut water or Gatorade also have the essential electrolytes you need to prevent or help improve dehydration.
Walk around more.
Remaining too still for long can also bring on leg muscle cramps. This is especially true if you have peripheral artery disease (PAD) or diabetes. Get the blood circulating in your legs so that oxygen and nutrient-rich blood reaches your nerves and muscles.
Give your muscles a massage.
You can do it yourself or book an appointment with a massage therapist. Massaging gets the blood flowing while relaxing the muscle that’s contracting and causing your pain.
Stretch your muscles.
Ask your physician about whether he or she thinks some light stretching exercises can help improve your symptoms for your particular situation. For instance, you can flex your foot up towards the upper part of your body or jiggle your leg. Calf stretches can be particularly helpful. If you tend to have night cramps, a gentle stretch before bedtime can help. Just remember to take it easy and start off slow.
Take a warm shower or bath every day, if possible.
The warm water can also help relax muscles and lessen the severity or frequency of your spasms or cramps.
Ask your doctor about taking an OTC medication for residual pain.
Leg cramps and spasms often result in pain long after the cramps or spasm has stopped.
Eat a diet rich in vitamins and minerals.
Focus on foods that are rich in calcium, magnesium, and potassium, such as beans, avocados, nuts and seed, and antioxidant fruits and vegetables.
Look for various ways to improve circulation in your legs.
We named a few: walking, stretching, massage, warm water, etc. However, there are a few products on the market that will do the work for you if your mobility is limited. The best thing is you can use these products while watching television or sitting down.
IIf you’ve been experiencing frequent leg cramps or muscle spasms, it’s probably a good idea to ask your doctor about it. He or she can likely determine the cause of your leg symptoms and help you find relief.
Ask your doctor about our recommendations and if they believe you might find them useful. It’s important to find a resolution to your symptoms so that you can stay as active as possible. This will help keep the circulation going in your body.
There’s no need for you to suffer. Finding relief for your leg muscle cramps and spasms is possible. You deserve to live a healthy, pain-free life.
Disclaimer: This content is not intended as medical advice. We believe in helping people to make informed decisions about their health. We hope to empower you to ask your physician the right questions so you can both agree on a treatment plan that’s right for you.
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