Leg and calf cramps can seize you, causing you to awaken from a peaceful sleep. A few simple maneuvers can often help ease your discomfort so you return to sleep. Most of these cramps are likely due to benign, preventable, or treatable causes, so see your doctor if you have recurrent leg and calf cramps while sleeping.
Nature of the Cramps
A leg or calf cramp is a spontaneous tightening or contraction of a muscle. These cramps usually occur in the calf muscles, but you can also have them in the front or back of your thighs or feet.
You might wake up with a cramp or get one when you are just falling asleep or waking. The painful contraction can last seconds to minutes, but rarely longer, and can recur if you don't treat the underlying cause.
- Abnormal electrolytes, especially potassium, from dehydration, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, or diuretics
- Abnormal minerals, mainly calcium and magnesium, from not enough minerals in your diet
- Vigorous exercise, which can decrease your blood sodium and potassium and build up lactic acid in your muscles
- Pregnancy, which can be associated with mineral deficiencies if you have morning sickness or are not eating a balanced diet
- Hyperventilation, which can cause a decrease in calcium and potassium
- Poor blood leg circulation due to disease of the arteries (peripheral vascular disease)
- Nerve compression in your back or legs or from your sleeping position, which can cause numbness that may feel like a cramp
- Medical problems, such as diabetes, kidney, thyroid, or adrenal disease (Addison's disease), which can cause electrolyte imbalances
Relieving a Cramp
Any of the following remedies can help relieve your pain if you awaken because of leg or calf cramps while sleeping:
- Relax the muscle. Sometimes this is enough to release the cramp.
- Stretch. Slowly stretch your calf muscle by the pulling your flexed foot towards your head, then relax your foot.
- Massage the cramp. Gently massaging the muscle can often force it to relax.
- Apply heat. Use a hot compress to increase blood to the muscle or take a hot shower if the hot compress doesn't help.
- Use a cold compress. This can induce the muscle to relax.
- Exercise. Stand and walk around the room a few times.
You can prevent leg and calf cramps while sleeping by eliminating the simple causes:
- Avoid dehydration. Drink enough fluids during the day, especially on a hot day and after exercise.
- Drink re-hydrating fluids such as Gatorade to replace potassium if you had diarrhea or vomiting or sweated a lot while exercising.
- Eat a balanced diet for adequate electrolytes and minerals.
- Cool down and stretch your muscles after vigorous exercise.
Consult Your Doctor
Consult your doctor for the following concerns:
- A cramp that is hard to relieve or persists despite suggested home remedies
- Cramps that recur frequently despite preventive steps
- You are pregnant and have recurrent cramps, especially if you have vomiting
- You have peripheral vascular disease or other medical problems that are associated with leg and calf cramps
Fortunately, you can avoid most leg and calf cramps with preventive habits or relieve them with simple home remedies.