Tired of being jolted awake by spasms? Here’s how to help your muscles relax.
by Beverly Burmeier
Almost every night excruciating leg cramps would wake Susan Tellem from a deep sleep. “I’m very active and thought the cramps resulted from a dance class I was taking,” says the Malibu, California, public relations professional. Despite her nursing background, Tellem couldn’t make the knot in her calf go away. “Nothing worked—not walking around or massaging the area,” she says.
Cramps such as those Tellem experienced seem especially painful at night. They are common among active individuals; conversely, they can also afflict normally sedentary people who suddenly exert themselves. Cramps also become more likely with age.
“A cramp in the calf, commonly called a ‘charley horse,’ is the most prevalent kind,” says Marc Leavey, MD, an internist affiliated with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Cramps, though, can occur anywhere.
Finding what causes persistent cramping may take detective work. Exercise can result in buildup of lactic acid in muscles from overexertion, while overstretching muscles can cause them to go into spasm. On the other hand, inactivity—such as sitting too long in an airplane or car—can cause cramps.
Dehydration from sweating too much, not getting enough fluids or from medications such as diuretics can induce cramps, as can circulatory problems, diabetes or hypothyroidism. Nutrition can also play a role. An imbalance in the minerals that control muscle contraction and relaxation—calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium—may induce cramping.
While cramps are benign, they can be mistaken for more serious conditions. Pain in the calves brought on by walking and relieved by rest can indicate peripheral artery disease, atherosclerosis in the blood vessels that supply the legs. Excessive sitting can lead to deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the legs that can travel to the lungs.
Easing the Ache
When it comes to alleviating cramps, “what works for one person may not work for another. It’s an individual process,” says Greg Sperber, MD, director of clinical services at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego. For many people, rubbing or massaging the muscle at the first sign of a cramp helps. Elongating the muscle by flexing your foot toward your knee and stretching your leg may also help. Walk, if you can, or stand on tip-toes. A warm towel or heating pad may relax the muscle, although some people have better results applying a cool towel.
You can try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for continued soreness, or such natural alternatives as willow bark and ginger as well as topical arnica. A warm bath with Epsom salts soothes sore muscles; you can add a few drops of ginger, lavender or birch essential oil.
The best way to deal with cramps is to avoid them. “Preventing cramps is an individual process, but increasing awareness of your body is important—when you’re tight do something to relax,” Sperber says.
Be sure to stay properly hydrated, especially when exercising or traveling. Some trainers report that pickle juice relieves cramps faster than plain water. The theory is that it replaces sodium lost during exertion and lessens dehydration, thus alleviating cramping. Sea salt in water provides not only sodium but a variety of trace minerals as well.
Eat foods rich in potassium and magnesium, such as bananas. Studies have shown that supplemental magnesium (often combined with calcium) can help. For Tellem, a routine physical uncovered a substantial deficit in vitamin D. Her leg cramps disappeared within a week once she began taking therapeutic doses and she has been cramp-free since. Deficiencies in vitamins B1, B5 and B6 have also been linked to cramping, and some people have found vitamin E to be helpful.
Avoid overexertion by shortening workouts; wear loose clothing that won’t restrict blood flow. It’s also a good idea to perform gentle stretches in the evening. For example, you can stand with your toes on one step of a stairway and lower only your heels (be sure to steady yourself). Or stand two or three feet from a wall with one foot close to the wall. Lean forward, place your forearms against the wall and straighten your rear knee, keeping the heel on the floor. Hold at least 10 seconds; switch legs and repeat.
At night, avoid tight bedclothes that can bend toes downward and trigger cramps.
Increase flexibility with yoga or tai chi, or ride a stationary bike for a few minutes shortly before bedtime. Wear low-heeled shoes instead of high heels, which point the toes down, or flip-flops, which don’t provide support.
To lessen thigh cramps, drink plenty of fluids and move around as much as possible when in confined spaces, such as an airplane cabin. Avoid foot cramps by shifting weight every 10 minutes when standing. “A sudden hard movement, such as jamming brakes on your car, could also trigger a foot cramp,” Leavey says.
Most cramps improve with rest and time. Hydration, proper diet and stretching should keep cramps under control.