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Prevent Night Calf Muscle Cramps (Charley Horse)

Updated on March 17, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Foods that can help avoid muscle cramps include bananas, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, milk and yogurt.
Foods that can help avoid muscle cramps include bananas, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, milk and yogurt. | Source

What are Muscle Cramps?

A muscle cramp occurs suddenly and without warning. It is an involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. At night, the muscles commonly affected are those in your legs (calves) and feet. The cramp can be very painful and will awaken you from deep sleep. The affected muscle feels hard and lumpy and you will feel unable to move that part of your body without experiencing acute pain.

Sometimes called a Charley Horse (calf cramp), the spasm or muscle contraction is a result of a lack of essential minerals or electrolytes in your body.

Consult Your Doctor

This article is for general information only. For health advice you should consult a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.

Common Causes of Night Cramps

Prevent a Charley Horse By Eating the Right Foods

Mineral / Electrolyte
Food Source
Potassium
Bananas, sweet potatoes, yogurt, white beans, and broccoli.
Salt (Sodium)
Normal seasoning of food should provide enough salt in your diet.
Calcium
Yogurt, sardines, turnip greens and dark leafy greens, cheese, and milk.
Magnesium
Beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, bananas and dark, leafy greens.

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an electric charge. They are in your blood, urine and body fluids. Maintaining the right balance of electrolytes helps your body's blood chemistry, muscle action and other processes. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chlorine, phosphate and magnesium are all electrolytes.

— US National Library of Medicene

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

Muscle cramps cause acute discomfort. For the majority of people the effects are short-lived and do not require medical intervention. However there are some circumstances where you should seek the opinion of a physician as the muscle cramps may indicate some other more serious medical condition.

You should consult your doctor if any of the following applies.

  • Your cramps are causing you severe and prolonged discomfort.
  • They are accompanied by your leg swelling, redness or other skin changes.
  • You experience muscle weakness in the same areas as the cramp is occurring.
  • The cramps happen frequently and don’t lessen with changes in your diet or other lifestyle changes.
  • The muscle cramps don’t seem to be connected to any obvious cause like vigorous exercise.

A man suffering with cramp in his leg.
A man suffering with cramp in his leg. | Source

What Causes Muscle Cramps?

Doctors don't yet know all of the reasons why muscles cramp and spasm. The cause of many of these painful events remains a mystery. Most people are aware that overusing a muscle can cause aches and strain (and pain). For this reason, doing strenuous sport after a long period of inactivity is not recommended.

If you have become unfit and are now attempting to regain your previous fitness levels, proceed with caution. Exercise times should be increased gradually to allow muscles to build their strength and flexibility. Warming up your muscles before an exercise session will also reduce the likelihood of your suffering muscle cramps.

Have you suffered from nocturnal (night) cramps?

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Sign of an Underlying Medical Condition

For a few people, nocturnal muscle cramp is an early warning of an undiagnosed more serious health issue. Although most cramping episodes are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition.

  1. Narrowing of the arteries: Night time leg cramps may be caused by an inadequate blood supply when you are lying down. Your resting heart rate may not be enough to push sufficient blood supply to your legs if you have narrowed arteries and so cramping results.
  2. Lumbar Stenosis or nerve compression: This kind of cramp intensifies the longer you are on your feet, so night-time cramps are unlikely to be associated with this condition.
  3. Insufficient potassium, calcium and magnesium in your diet: This can be the result of a poor diet or it can be a side effect of medication you are taking. Potassium, calcium and magnesium are essential components of a healthy balanced diet. A lack of these minerals has been linked to night muscle cramps. Diuretics (tablets prescribed for high blood pressure) are known to affect the level of these minerals in your body as they make you urinate more often and so flush out these minerals.

The Real Cause of a Charley Horse (Calf Cramp)

How to Prevent Muscle Cramps

  1. Drink enough water through the day especially if you are doing energetic exercise or are in a hot climate. Adequate hydration will make you feel better and more alert.
  2. Eat a diet that contains plenty of the essential minerals needed for overall health and well-being. A healthy diet will include food that are rich in potassium. Foods that have high potassium levels include bananas, potatoes, avocado, white beans and oranges. Foods with a high calcium content include dairy foods (milk, cheese and butter), kale, sardines and broccoli. Magnesium rich foods include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds and yogurt.

People at Higher Risk

Some groups of people are more likely than others to suffer from leg and other cramps. Age affects many health conditions and muscle spasms are no different; the older you are, the more likely you are to experience leg cramp at night.

For younger age groups, dehydration after taking part in sport is a common factor. Fatigue and a low water intake on a hot day increase an athlete’s chance of suffering from night cramp. Low levels of water can lead to a drop in sodium levels (lost as salt in sweat) and this can cause leg cramps.

For women, the risk factor is pregnancy and muscle cramps are common during the nine months expecting a baby.

Finally, underlying and possibly undiagnosed medical ailments can increase the chance of night-time muscle cramps. If you have diabetes, neurological conditions (such as motor neurone disease), or liver disease, you may be at a higher risk of these painful acute muscle contractions.

Ayurvedic Remedies to Treat Night Cramps

The video below provides suggestions of natural and Ayurveda ways to tackle night-time muscle cramps including taking quinine (found in tonic water).

There are also homeopathic remedies available such as Hyland’s Leg Cramp Tablets. These have not been reviewed by the FDA, but the manufacturer says they’re safe to take with other medication as they don’t contain Aspirin, Acetaminophen, or Ibuprofen. They provide immediate temporary relief from the acute discomfort of calf muscle spasms.

Consult Your Doctor

Always consult your doctor or medical provider before taking any supplements or herbal remedies.

How to Stop Leg Cramps at Night

Sources of Further Information

The following websites give more details of the symptoms, causes and recommended treatment for calf and leg cramps.

UK National Health Service (NHS) http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/legcrampsunknowncause/pages/introduction.aspx

US Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/home/ovc-20186047

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 months ago from The Caribbean

      I haven't had this happen to me recently, but I used to experience these cramps. Thanks for your very valuable help on how to prevent and threat them.

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