Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night to discover your calf muscles seizing up? You're not alone. Nocturnal leg cramps are common but usually harmless. While they can happen at any time of day, about three-quarters of us experience them at night when our bodies are resting. The good news is there are ways to prevent or relieve leg cramps at night.

What Do Leg Cramps Feel Like?

The kind of leg cramp that hits during the night is often painful to the point of agony and can make it difficult to move the affected area. It may feel as if the muscles in your leg are contracting and locking up. The cramps can last for a few seconds or as long as ten minutes and can affect the soles of the feet as well as the calves. When the cramp eases, the affected muscles may feel tender for some time afterward.

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Why Do I Get Leg Cramps?

The leg cramps in question are also known as idiopathic leg cramps and can occur for no apparent reason, though they may be a complication or symptom of another health condition. If so, they are called secondary leg cramps. Medications such as diuretics and statins may also be to blame for nighttime leg cramps.

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Factors that Cause Leg Cramps

Factors such as age can exacerbate or cause leg cramps, as well as exercise, dehydration, alcohol, and flat feet. Sometimes, the reason for a specific instance of leg cramping is easy to pinpoint, such as if you know you recently walked a long way without drinking much water. Alternatively, if you have been more stagnant than usual, lack of or changes in circulation could be to blame.

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Why Do My Legs Cramp at Night?

More than 60% of Americans report experiencing nocturnal leg cramps at one time or another. Although there is no real science behind why we experience them more during the night, it is possible the side effects of dehydration or the after-effects of exercising without a proper warm-up or cooldown are a factor.

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How Can I Treat Leg Cramps?

You can treat leg cramps while you're experiencing them or preventatively before you go to bed. During an attack, when the muscle feels tight, exercising or massaging the point of discomfort can relieve the pain and tension. If the cramps don't improve with exercise and stretching, your physician may be able to prescribe medication. If you're up for home remedies, researchers discovered in 2010 that drinking pickle juice alleviates cramps faster than water.

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When Should I See a Doctor About Leg Cramps?

Although leg cramps are usually nothing serious, there are instances where you might see a doctor. If nocturnal leg cramps are disturbing your sleep, affecting your overall quality of life, a doctor can help with prescriptions or troubleshoot the underlying cause, especially if you're experiencing symptoms such as numbness or swelling. To diagnose the cause, your physician will ask you about your symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical exam. If necessary, they can recommend tests to rule out other factors. One thing to note: if the cramps persist for ten minutes or longer, seek medical aid.

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How Can I Prevent Leg Cramps?

While not an exact science, eating foods rich in magnesium may help curb leg cramps. Make sure you stay hydrated. You can also stretch the affected muscles during the day and right before you go to bed. If these exercises help reduce nighttime leg cramps, continue to do them every day.

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Conditions Relating to Secondary Leg Cramps

In the case of secondary leg cramps, a few conditions can be held accountable, the most notable being peripheral artery disease and diabetes, both of which cause poor circulation. Vitamin B12 deficiencies and issues with the thyroid may also cause cramps in the leg.

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Risk Factors for Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps can occur in people of any age, but they're much more common in the elderly -- 33% of all reported cases affected people over the age of 60. Pregnancy, particularly in the last stages, can also be a risk factor. Cramps due to pregnancy tend to stop once the baby is born. Obesity and poor diet can also exacerbate leg cramps, mostly due to insufficient nutrients and lack of exercise.

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Is it Possible it's Not Leg Cramps?

Deep vein thrombosis or DVT can mimic the symptoms of leg cramps when blood clots form in the veins of your legs. DVT usually occurs in people who have been stationary for a long time, such as following a surgery or on a long flight.

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