Leg Cramps: Are They Something to Worry About?

Legs cramps are common, and most people will experience them at some point in their lives. In most of these cases, the cause is unknown but some medicines and diseases can cause them. You can prevent them by doing regular calf stretching, and quinine tablets may be advised as a last resort if you have regular cramps. Leg cramps are pains which occur in the leg muscle when it spasms, and this usually occurs in the calf muscle.

Cramps usually only last a few minutes, but they can be quite painful. Some people find that they get them at night, as they usually develop when you’re resting. Although most people experience them at some point, some people get them often and they are more common in older people. One in three people over the age of 60, and around half of people over the age of 80, get regular leg cramps. About 4 in 10 people who have leg cramps get them around 3 per week, and in some rare cases people suffer with them every day. One theory that experts have is when a muscle is already in a shortened position, it is stimulated to contract and this may lead it to go into spasm. As you may be in a curled up position when you sleep, this could explain why cramps are more common at night. Other causes include certain medications, over exertion of the muscles, dehydration, pregnancy, an untreated underactive thyroid gland, excess alcohol consumption, peripheral arterial disease and some nerve conditions.

Stretching the muscle and massaging the affected area can help reduce cramps, and most cramp pains disappear on their own after a while. Painkillers aren’t useful as they don’t act fast enough to remove the pain before it heals itself. However, if you have tenderness or pain which lasts after the cramp has dissipated, painkillers may be beneficial. You don’t need to worry about preventing cramps if they only occur from time to time. However, if you have them regularly, there are some things you can do to limit the development of a cramp. You may want to tell your doctor if you’re taking any specific medications, as these may be increasing the risk of cramp – they may be able to advise an alternative drug. GPs often recommend stretching exercises to get rid of cramp, but there isn’t actually much research to prove that this works. It’s worth testing the theory and if it works for you, you may not need tablets to prevent the cramps.

Some people find that simply changing their position in bed can help too. Try using a pillow to prop your feet up when you’re in bed whilst sleeping on your back, or hang your feet over the edge of the bed when you’re sleeping on your stomach. You may find it helpful to keep the blankets loose at the foot of the bed to prevent your toes from pointing downwards when you’re sleeping.


Quinine may be offered as a last resort, but you shouldn’t take it if you’re pregnant or are likely to become pregnant. There are also some rare conditions which can lead to a reaction so speak to your GP about the risks before opting for this method of treatment. Other possible treatments include vitamin B complex, vitamin E, magnesium or verapamil. These aren’t usually advised though, as there is limited research to prove that they work for most people. Your GP will be able to talk you through the options you have depending on your medical history and symptoms.

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