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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
There’s a two-word phrase that makes many wince just hearing it. No, it’s not public speaking. We’re talking about a Charley horse, the nastiest of all leg cramps. But even leg cramps that don’t wake you up in the middle of the night are unwelcome and unpleasant.
Muscle cramps and spasms are essentially the same thing, with a bit of nuance. A muscle spasm happens when a muscle contracts outside of your control. It also won’t respond if you try to relax it.
A muscle cramp is a prolonged muscle spasm that lasts anywhere from seconds to several minutes (looking at you, Charley). These involuntary contractions can happen in one muscle or an entire group.
So, how do you get rid of leg cramps and are there ways to prevent them from happening? Here’s what you need to know.
What causes leg muscle cramps?
Unfortunately, we can cause our own leg cramps due to lifestyle factors such as exercise or potentially dehydration.
Muscle cramps often occur if exercising in extreme heat. Researchers suggest this is due to significant losses of sweat and electrolytes. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are often blamed for leg cramps, though there’s not enough direct evidence linking the two yet (Bordoni, 2021).
We do know certain health conditions can cause cramps. Nearly 40% of Americans over the age of 60 experience nocturnal leg cramps (also called nighttime leg cramps), a condition that commonly affects the calf muscles (Bordoni, 2021).
Leg cramps also occur in roughly 50% of pregnant people. Other medical conditions that cause cramps include kidney disease, diabetes, cirrhosis, and fibromyalgia.
Exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMCs) happen during or after physical activity. Researchers don’t fully understand them, although some suggest that possible causes include dehydration and mineral imbalances (Bordoni, 2021).
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How to relieve leg cramps
The easiest way to treat a cramped muscle is by stretching or massaging it.
If your leg muscle cramps during an activity or exercise, the best thing to do is stop what you’re doing and stretch or rub it. For example, if you get hit with a big bronco of a Charley horse, stretch your calf out by pushing your heel away. This should alleviate some pain and help the cramp pass faster.
Home remedies like applying heat, taking ibuprofen, or soaking in a warm bath aren’t likely to stop a cramp but they ease any discomfort.
How to prevent leg cramps
Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths about preventing exercise-related leg cramps that science doesn’t back up.
There’s little proof that stretching before a workout prevents cramps, although of course stretching before a workout wouldn’t do any harm. Studies haven’t proven that electrolyte imbalances are a cause of cramps either. But warming up before exercising and getting enough hydration may help (Borondi, 2021).
Instead of trying to prevent cramps with unproven methods, it’s better to know how to treat a leg cramp if it happens––especially if you get them frequently.
If you regularly get leg cramps unrelated to a medical condition, talk to a healthcare professional about testing your magnesium levels. Low magnesium can cause muscle cramps, although most people get enough through their diet. If it turns out you are low on magnesium, supplements can help (Gragossian, 2021).
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When to use electrolyte supplements
Despite what commercials and advertisers may market, we don’t necessarily need supplements.
Our kidneys are in charge of filtering electrolytes and water out of our blood, sending back what we need, and getting rid of what we don’t through urine. They’re generally very good at maintaining the proper ratio of electrolytes, especially if you’re eating healthy.
You may benefit from electrolyte solutions or supplements if you exercise for long periods or are sick and losing fluids through vomiting or diarrhea. Some people who take diuretics for things like high blood pressure may need electrolyte supplements. But be sure to get medical advice from your healthcare provider first. If you do choose to buy a supplement, check that it includes all of the electrolytes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, and nothing is stopping a company from using the word electrolytes on the label when the product doesn’t include all of them. For example, some include sodium and potassium but not calcium or magnesium.
If you have an underlying condition that causes leg cramps, working with your healthcare provider to manage the condition and its symptoms is the first step.
- Bordoni, B., Sugumar, K., & Varacallo, M. (2021). Muscle Cramps. StatPearls Publishing. Treasure Island, FL. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499895/
- Gragossian, A., Bashir, K., & Friede, R. (2021). Hypomagnesemia. StatPearls Publishing. Treasure Island, FL. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500003/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.