What Causes Leg Cramps and How to Get Rid of Them
What Causes Leg Cramps?
Are you plagued with intermittent leg cramps? Are you perplexed by what's causing them? It's important to get to the bottom of what is causing your leg pain; only then can you begin to treat and relieve the pain.
First, let's talk about a few factors that have been proven to cause leg pain and cramping. One of the more serious (but thankfully less common) health conditions that can cause leg cramps is deep vein thrombosis or DVT. DVT is a blood clot in the leg. This condition has specific symptoms such as pain, swelling, and redness in a specific area of the leg. One might also feel a lump or clot. However, as a rule, a clot will not be palpable. Symptoms of DVT will be felt in one leg only. If your symptoms in any respect mimic the above symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Another health problem that can cause leg cramps is an electrolyte imbalance. Think of the body as a machine, and think of electrolytes as different types of fuel that help keep the body working properly. When any given electrolyte is experiencing an imbalance, the human body will be warned with specific signs and symptoms. So, how can an electrolyte imbalance affect your leg muscles and ultimately cause cramps?
There are three major electrolytes that help keep muscles healthy and hydrated: calcium, potassium, and sodium. I am sure you may be at this point wondering, how can these electrolytes become depleted? Actually, electrolytes are easily depleted, and they are sneaky in doing so.
How Do Electrolytes Become Depleted?
Perhaps you don't take the time to eat breakfast, and then you head off for a day of shopping. Then, to add to the problem, you don't take time to stop and drink water. After you have been shopping for several hours you may experience dizziness. Maybe even feel some discomfort or muscle twitching along with pain in your lower legs. You might even feel heart palpitations. You may attribute these uneasy feelings to overexertion, perhaps too much walking. Well, this assumption might be partially correct. However, the combination of overexertion and lack of food and fluids has increased your body's need for electrolytes and has left you dehydrated.
Dehydration can have symptoms such as heart palpitations and leg cramps. The symptoms that are being experienced are symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance, which is a result of dehydration. Dehydration is just one of the culprits that can cause leg cramps.
Questions to Ask Yourself If You're Experiencing Leg Cramps
How often do you have leg cramps?
- I have leg cramps daily.
- Once in a while.
- My leg cramps never go away; I have constant pain.
If you answered one and three, you need to see a doctor.
Do you consider yourself a person who keeps your body well hydrated?
- Yes, I make sure to take in fluids throughout the day.
- As a rule, I try to take in the proper amount of fluids daily, although I sometimes have busy days and I forget to drink ample fluids.
- I am not on top of drinking water regularly. I know I don't take in the proper amount of fluids on a given day.
If you answered two or three, you need to make sure to drink more fluids during your busy day. It's recommended that you drink eight, 8oz glasses of water a day.
Do you skip meals?
- No, I do not.
- Yes, from time to time.
- I frequently skip meals.
If you answered three to this question, make an effort to eat at least two meals a day, and add a few healthy snacks in between meals.
Are you a person who is always on the go?
- Yes, I am always on the go.
- No, not really.
- I go in spurts. I have periods where my life is hectic and then periods where I'm sedentary.
Exercise is great, but if you answered one to this question, you still may be a candidate for leg cramps. If you are not eating properly, and taking in a proper amount of fluids, you can develop dehydration and all the nasty symptoms that accompany it.
This question is for those who are plagued with recurring leg cramps.
When you are experiencing leg cramps, are they accompanied by other symptoms, such as dizziness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or lethargy?
- Yes, I do experience some of these symptoms.
- No, I actually just have the leg cramps.
- This is a hard question, at times when I am having leg cramps I do have some of the above-mentioned symptoms. However, sometimes I just have leg cramps alone.
This question brings to light more severe cases of dehydration. If you answered one and three, you need to alter your daily eating and drinking habits. You are putting undue stress on your body by creating an electrolyte imbalance, which may lead to a more severe case of dehydration.
Helpful Tips to Stave off Leg Cramps
Hopefully, you will take steps to eat better, and make sure to drink enough fluids, especially on a busy or stressful day.
I would encourage my readers to include foods and fluids that contain the three important electrolytes that can help prevent problems with leg cramping. These three electrolytes, calcium, potassium, and sodium, are associated and proven to aid in building and maintaining both muscle and bone health. Most importantly, these electrolytes play a major role in keeping the hydration balance in the human body.
Let's discover the benefits of calcium, potassium, and sodium.
The Big Three: Calcium, Potassium, and Sodium
These are the three major electrolytes that can help maintain hydration balance in the human body.
To put it simply, electrolytes are pretty good at keeping themselves in balance. If a human is eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated, all should be well in regards to keeping their muscles in good health and pain-free. The trouble starts when the electrolytes are depleted.
So, where does the human body get electrolytes from? Electrolytes are supplied by what we eat, and drink. It's as simple as that. Calcium, potassium, and sodium are present what we consume. By making sure we eat well and drink ample amounts of water, we can maintain a good normal electrolyte balance, and hopefully, stave off dehydration and those painful leg cramps.
Recommended Daily Allowance of Potassium
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of potassium is 3500 milligrams.
If you are having leg cramps, and think your leg cramps might be due to dehydration, try to consume some foods that will beef up the big three electrolytes. You may be surprised how quickly those leg cramps disappear.
If you have a cramp, start by eating a nice, big banana.
Foods High in Potassium
Nuts and Grains
Meat and Fish
Peanuts With Skin
Recommended Daily Amounts of Calcium
RDA for women:
- Age 9–18 years: 1300 mg
- Age 19–50 years: 1000 mg
- Over the age of 50: 1200 mg
RDA for men:
- Age 9–18 years: 1300 mg
- Age 19–50 years: 1000 mg
- Over the age of 50: 1200 mg
Foods High in Calcium
Fast Food in a Pinch
Rhubarb (frozen or fresh)
Sardines (drained with bones)
Enchilada With Cheese
Spinach (frozen or fresh)
Tostada With Guacamole
Hot Fudge Sundae
Sodium: A Little Goes a Long Way
The current RDA of sodium is to consume less than 2,400 milligrams (mg) a day. This is about one teaspoon of table salt per day. It includes all salt and sodium consumed, including sodium used in cooking and at the table.
Sodium is important for hydration, as well as for good health.
Sodium is one of the electrolytes that are very important for cell health and plays a key role in keeping the body hydrated. Sodium works by pushing water into cells, while potassium works by pushing waste out of cells. This balance between sodium, and potassium actually helps to prevent dehydration and promotes healthy cell function.
Sodium is especially important during physical activity, due to electrolytes being lost through active sweating. Adequate levels of sodium are needed to maintain this delicate balance in the body.
Sodium is prevalent in most foods; it's not hard to find foods that contain salt. However, in the case of dehydration, one needs a bit of salt, to replace what the body lost in its state of dehydration.
In a pinch grab a few potato chips. Salty snacks are a good way to replace sodium.
Healthy Sources of Sodium
Let's face it; sodium is abundant in processed foods. However, keep in mind most processed foods are also full of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and preservatives. While these additives can be harmful to your health, it's possible to find processed foods that add sodium to your diet, without ruining your healthy diet. Salted nuts can provide healthy fats, protein, and fiber along with that needed sodium.
Items typically found in jars can provide sodium, while limiting calories. Foods such as dill pickles, olives, and salsas. Along with lightly salted whole wheat crackers can also provide sodium and healthy fiber.
Sodium and Sports Drinks
Sports drinks are specifically designed to combat the problem of sodium deficiency. If your diet contains adequate amounts of sodium, water is sufficient. However, once your activity level exceeds normal limits, and you deplete your sodium level, a sports drink will provide the electrolytes needed to restore hydration and cell function in a mild case of dehydration.
Leg Cramps From Overexertion
Naturally, one can overwork any given muscle group. The leg muscles can easily become overworked, and pain will occur in the leg if any leg muscle has been overused.
The most common culprit that can cause leg muscle pain from overuse is exercise. Especially a new form of exercise you're not used to, like a new Zumba class or a new regime of speed walking?
Leg muscles can even become sore due to new shoes. For example, as a rule, you may wear four-inch heels to work, and one day you decided to wear flat shoes to work. The change in the heel height or the change in arch support can wreak havoc on your leg muscles. By the end of the day, you may find that your legs are killing you! The following day, your legs may hurt even more. You have unintentionally overworked muscles in your legs, that you are not accustomed to working out.
This type of leg pain can most often be treated with over an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, and a long soak in a hot tub.
If your discomfort lasts more than a week, I suggest you see a physician. You may have a muscle inflammation due to muscle damage.
Still Unsure of What's Causing Your Leg Cramps?
If you are still unsure of what is causing your leg cramps, I suggest keeping a diary. On the days you experience leg cramps, jot down what you did that day. For example, "I was shopping and on my feet for four hours."
Jot down what you ate and drank for the entire day. "I did not eat because I was so rushed today." Or, "I did not take time to eat, and drank only a small amount of fluids." Or, "I had a cup of coffee in the morning. I had a potato, steak, and green beans for dinner at 6 pm. In the evening, I had a few peanuts for a snack. My leg cramps subsided."
Make sure to jot down when your leg cramps subsided.
After you have entered a few days of what you have experienced with your leg cramps, check what you have logged in your diary. Do you see any correlation in the activity of the day and the food and fluids you consumed?
Did your cramps subside after you ate dinner, and were relaxing for the evening? If this is the case, your leg cramps most likely were caused by slight dehydration, brought on by a fluctuation in your electrolytes.
Muscle Tension: Let's Take the Crimp out of That Cramp
Massage the area very gently. This can help the muscle relax. (Never massage an area where you can physically feel any form of lump or nodule.)
Attempt to slowly stretch the affected muscle. Try a wall stretch. Stand about three feet from the wall, with your knees straight and your heels on the floor. Now, lean into the wall, supporting yourself with your hands. You should feel your calf muscles stretching. Hold for 60 seconds, repeat three times.
If you develop leg camps that you can attribute to overexertion and dehydration, it's time to sip fluids. Sports drinks are an excellent option to help hydrate your body. Focus on eating and drinking foods and fluids that contain calcium, and potassium. Think bananas, oranges, milk, yogurt, perhaps even a turkey.