A man sitting on a grey couch wearing blue jeans holding his knee.
Leg cramps can be caused by dehydration or fatigue, but persistent cramping should be discussed with a doctor.

How to Stop Leg Cramps

Spontaneous pain in your leg can happen to anyone. It may be occasional, or it may occur often. These spasms in the muscle may happen on their own accord or as the result of an underlying medical condition. Here you will learn how to stop leg cramps and when they are something to worry about.

What Are Leg Cramps?

Leg cramps come on suddenly and occur when you experience an involuntary contraction or tightening of a leg muscle (or several muscles in a group of leg muscles). These Charley horses generally occur in the calf, or the front or back of your thigh—in the hamstrings and quadriceps. Leg cramps can affect any of your skeletal muscles, which are the ones you typically have voluntary control over.

When a leg cramp happens, it may last for only a few seconds, but in some cases, they can extend to 15 minutes or longer. You may only have one and be done, or leg cramps can recur a few times before they go away. This is an issue that happens even when you are sleeping; leg cramps can be so intense they wake you up. The easiest way to deal with them is to try to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Causes of Leg Cramps

Leg cramps are an idiopathic condition, so determining a cause is not always possible. Some causes that may contribute to leg cramps include:

  • Depletion of electrolytes and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, or calcium (which can occur from dehydration)
  • Sitting or standing for a long time, especially when standing on a hard surface
  • Muscle fatigue from exercising or overusing your muscles
  • Exposure to cold temperatures
  • Pregnancy due to the decrease in minerals (especially in late pregnancy)
  • Certain medical conditions, such as inadequate blood supply, nerve compression, or kidney disease
  • Some medications, such as some birth control pills, diuretics, or steroids

Most muscle cramps are harmless and leg cramps are no exception. If you have constant or very painful leg cramps and you are not sure why, make an appointment with your doctor to get their medical opinion.

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Leg Cramp Symptoms

The most prominent symptom of leg cramps is a sudden, sharp pain in your muscles that makes them feel tight. Some people who suffer from leg cramps can see or feel a hard lump of muscle form. Cramps are typically fleeting but can last several minutes or recur multiple times before they stop. The majority of cramps are benign, but in some instances, they signal an underlying medical issue. For symptoms that last longer than 10 minutes or cause excruciating pain, go to the hospital.

Treatment for Leg Cramps

In most cases, cramps are not serious enough to require medical care. They usually go away on their own without any sort of treatment.

For mild leg cramps, you can take care of them at home. Sometimes it is solved by getting on your feet and walking around or stretching/massaging the muscle. If that does not work, a leg cramp may require hot or cold temperatures to feel better; you can try a warm shower or heating pad to relax the muscle or apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth.

For cramps that cause a lot of pain, an over-the-counter mediation, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can make you feel better. Some doctors may suggest a vitamin B12 complex as well.

When leg cramps come with muscle weakness, severe pain, occur frequently, or the leg becomes swollen or red, you should see a doctor. Your leg cramps may be the result of another condition or they may require a prescription to keep the pain and frequency under control. While no medication prevents leg cramps entirely, some prescriptions may make them less frequent. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Carisoprodol: a muscle relaxant
  • Diltiazem: a calcium-channel blocker
  • Orphenadrine: to treat muscle pain and stiffness
  • Verapamil: a calcium channel blocker

There are not any surgeries available as a recommended cure for leg cramps.

How to Prevent Leg Cramps

In many cases, avoiding leg cramps is possible with attention to your daily habits. Some simple additions to your day may be:

  • Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day maintains your electrolytes. Limit or avoid beverages that have dehydrating effects, such as coffee and alcohol.
  • Eat mineral-rich foods. Choose foods that give you minerals that are rich in calcium, potassium, and magnesium, such as salmon, dark leafy greens, or yogurt.
  • Stretch. Stretching your muscles every day may help decrease cramps in your leg muscles. Always warm up a bit before stretching so your muscles get some increased blood flow before you lengthen them.
  • Exercise smartly. When you start a new exercise regimen or want to increase the amount you are currently doing, do not make big changes overnight. Boost your workout intensity or time in small increments so you do not shock your muscles.
  • Take vitamins. Talk to a certified nutritionist or doctor before adding vitamins or supplements to your daily routine. They may advise on a daily multivitamin, additional magnesium, or other minerals.

The next time you feel these pains in your leg, take note of it. If you are aware that leg cramps happen more often or come with unbearable intensity, you should get it checked out. For run-of-the-mill leg cramps, hydrate and practice other preventative measures to try to avoid them in the future.