Sleep related leg cramps are sudden and intense feelings of pain in the leg or foot. The pain is caused when a muscle contracts and tightens. The cramps occur without you being able to control them. They may happen while you are still awake or after you are asleep.
They normally begin very suddenly. Sometimes, they may begin slowly with less painful warning signs. The muscle cramps can last for a few seconds or several minutes. They end as suddenly as they began. They may occur as rarely as once per year in some people. Other people can have many cramps every night. In a number of people, the cramps tend to come and go over a length of many years.
The cramps can be relieved by stretching the affected muscle. The muscle may still be tender and sore several hours after the cramp. At times, leg cramps can also be eased by the following:
- Massaging the area in pain
- Applying heat to the muscle
- Moving the affected leg or foot
The muscle cramp not only causes pain, but it can also disturb your sleep. It can make it hard for you to fall asleep. It may also wake you up after you have been asleep. The soreness felt after the cramp can also make it hard for you to go back to sleep again.
Leg cramps are sometimes confused with restless legs syndrome (RLS). Both problems involve discomfort with the legs during the time of sleep. RLS usually does not involve a feeling of pain nor does the muscle become tight. It also tends to be at least partly relieved as soon as there is any leg movement. This urge to move the legs is much stronger with RLS than with leg cramps. Relieving the pain from leg cramps involves more time and more stretching of the muscle.
Who gets it?
Sleep related leg cramps can occur at almost any age. They are more common and frequent in the elderly. Thirty-three percent of those over 60 years of age have sleep related leg cramps at least once every two months. Almost every adult over the age of 50 years will have them at least one time. About 7% of children and teens have leg cramps that are not very frequent. They do not seem to occur before a child reaches the age of eight. Leg cramps occur in about 40% of pregnant women. They tend to go away after delivery.
You are more likely to have sleep related leg cramps if you also have any of the following medical conditions:
- Blood vessel disease
- Some metabolic disorders
- Some nerve or muscle diseases
Leg cramps can also be related to the following circumstances:
- Vigorous exercise
- Use of certain medications
- Fluid and electrolyte disturbances
- Endocrine disorders
- Disorders that make you less mobile
How do I know if I have it?
- Do you get a painful feeling in your leg or foot as a muscle contracts and tightens?
- Does this occur around the time when you sleep?
- Does the pain ease when you stretch the muscle that is causing you pain?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you might have sleep related leg cramps.
It is also important to know if there is something else that is causing your sleep problems. They may be a result of one of the following:
- Another sleep disorder
- A medical condition
- Medication use
- A mental health disorder
- Substance abuse
Do I need to see a sleep specialist?
Talk with a family doctor about your painful leg cramps. Your doctor may be able to help you find simple ways to relieve the pain and deal with the problem. You may need to see a sleep specialist if the leg cramps continue to cause severe sleep problems that affect your daily life.
What will the doctor need to know?
First, the doctor will need to know when the leg cramps started. He will also want to know what else has been going on in your life. You should complete a sleep diary for two weeks. This will give the doctor clues as to what might be causing your problems. You can also rate your sleep with the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. This will help show how your sleep is affecting your daily life. The doctor will need to know your complete medical history. Be sure to inform him of any past or present drug and medication use. Also tell him if you have ever had any other sleep disorder.
Will I need to take any tests?
Doctors do not need any tests to treat most patients with leg cramps. He or she may test your blood in the lab if it is suspected that you might have a related medical problem.
How is it treated?
Effective treatments for sleep related leg cramps still have not been developed. Some physicians may prescribe quinine tablets.
A daily exercise program that involves stretching of the leg muscles may be the best way for you to prevent and relieve leg cramps.
SOURCE: American Academy of Sleep Medicine; Reviewed by Donald R. Townsend, PhD