Leg cramps are sudden and painful contractions of leg muscles. They often occur when the body is at rest, typically during sleep. They also occur with strenous exercise, when using a group of muscles repeatedly, or when blood circulation is cut off from sitting awkwardly.
Muscle cramps can last for a few seconds or up to several minutes. Muscle groups that are mostly involved in leg cramps are calf (back of the lower leg), hamstrings (back of the thigh) and quadriceps (front of the thigh).
Many people experience leg cramps occasionally. Elderly people and pregnant women are at greater risk. The cause of leg cramps may be associated with:
- Injury or overuse of muscles of the leg
- Poor blood circulation in the legs
- Exposure to cold temperatures, expecially to cold water
- Bad posture such as sitting with legs crossed or standing for long periods
- Dehydration expecially in a hot environment
- Electrolyte imbalances or mineral deficiencies, e.g. calcium & magnesium
- Overacidic body from consumption of acidic foods such as white vinegar.
- Medications such as diuretics, statins, lithium, prednisone & nicotinic acid
- Health conditions such as kidney dialysis, liver cirrhosis, alcoholism & hypothyroidis
If muscle cramps result from dehydration water and salt are immediately needed. If leg cramps and heaviness in the legs appear after minimal exercise, such as a short walk, the cause may lie in the more serious arteriosclerosis or thrombosis in the veins.
Most leg cramps respond to gentle massage & stretching. When the leg cramp appears, immediately stand on the affected leg, lean forward gently to stretch the contracted muscle, holding until the cramp goes away. If you are lying down you can sit up and flex the foot using a towel or sheet wrapped around the foot to help stretch.
Other useful measures to promote the circulation, ease pain & relax muscles are:
- Walk around or shake the leg
- Take a warm shower or bath with Epsom salts
- Apply a hot pad
- Massage the affected muscles
- Drink water or a sports drink do hydrate the muscles
- Take a muscle relaxant recommended by your doctor
In most cases, leg cramps are occasional and harmless. However, when your leg cramps keep coming back, interfering with your daily life or sleep, you should consult a doctor to rule out any potential health problem. Sometimes, your doctor may prescribe anti-spasm drugs.
Chinese Acupressure Massage for Leg Cramps
Acupressure massage is an effective home remedy for relieving and preventing leg cramps. This can be especially effective as a preventive measure before going to bed.
- Apply finger pressure to Du 26 in the crease between the end of the nose and upper lip for 30 seconds or until pain decreases
- Rub the outside of the lower legs with the heel of the opposite foot activating Stomach 36 & Gall Bladder 34 Points
- Massage the soles of the feet with the thumbs activating Kidney Points
- Massage the back of the knees and calf muscles with fingers activating Bladder 40 & 57 Points
- Apply pressure with thumbs for 30 seconds to Bladder 60 and Small Intestine 3 Points
Foods to help leg cramps
Cramps appearing regularly indicate a nutritional deficiency which needs to be addressed. Leg cramps that occur at night often signal a lack of minerals especially calcium and magnesium.
Avoid acid causing foods such as red meat, baked goods, sweet and processed foods. Avoid large amounts of coffee or alcohol, which cause magnesium to be lost in the urine. Acidic foods are also a problem including white vinegar which is found in many foods such as pickles, mayonnaise, mustard and salad dressing. Apple cider vinegar and other natural wine vinegars do not cause a problem.
Eat foods rich in magnesium such as dark green leafy vegetables: spinach, raw wheat germ, corn, figs, dates, lemons, grapefruit, apples, coca, avocados, bananas, nuts and seeds. Peanuts, sesame seeds and walnuts are rich in both magnesium and calcium.
Foods rich in calcium are dark green leafy vegetables, fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir and soy beans, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, dark chocolate, almonds and sardines in oil with bones.
Vitamin E is highly recommended with cramps that arise from poor circulation as it opens blood vessels improving oxygen supply. The elderly with nightly leg cramps will find vitamin E particularly useful.
For chronic cramps, combine one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and one tablespoon of unpasteurized honey in glass of water for a daily drink.
Traditional Chinese Medicine offers all natural herbal remedies to help address the issue of cramping. One such formula is Si Wu Tang or Four Substance Decoction. This formula tonifies and moves the blood helping resolve one of the key issues in muscle cramping which is Qi stagnation and Blood deficiency.
Lifestyle tips for preventing leg cramps
If you are likely to develop leg cramps, it is very important to modify some of your life habits in order to reduce the frequency and severity of future cramps.
- Eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in calcium & magnesium
- Avoid staying in front of a blowing fan or air conditionner
- Keep the legs warm
- Always warm up before exercising and stretch after exercising
- Wear shoes with proper support
- Stay hydrated
- Reduce consumption of alcool a& caffeine
- Stretch the legs regularly, especially before going to bed
- Moderate exercises are encouraged to strengthen the leg muscles i.e. walking, cycling, yoga
- Avoid overly tight bedding to ensure toes and feet are not constricted
- Pregnant women can wear support stockings & keep feet up when possible
- Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine