A muscle cramp is a sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle, and usually affects the thighs, calves and muscles of the foot. If you’ve ever experienced a leg cramp, especially in the middle of the night, you know it’s not pleasant. No one knows for sure what causes these spasms, but it is thought that when you turn during sleep, you stretch the tendons in the leg calf muscles. That in turn stimulates nerve receptors in the tendons and sends a message back to the spinal cord, telling the calf muscles to contract.
Muscle cramps at night can also be caused by pinched nerves, a partially. obstructed flow of blood to the legs, over-exercising, some drugs such as diuretics (water pills), dehydration, and abnormal mineral or hormone levels. If you have leg cramps, it is important to be sure that your blood levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and thyroid hormone are normal. Your doctor can make this determination as well as any other requiring more study.
If the cause is not serious, you can often prevent night cramps by stretching your calf muscles with wall pushups and/or applying a heating pad for 10 minutes before you go to bed. Other methods of treatment are: flexing the foot of the cramping leg, massaging the affected area, and soaking in very warm water. On the other hand, cool compresses can sometimes be beneficial. Also, elevating the foot of the bed, and wrapping the legs tightly with cloth may help. Be sure you drink plenty of water during the day so you are well hydrated, and empty the bladder before bedtime.
For a calf cramp, straighten your leg and point your toes upward, while you gently rub the cramp to help the muscle relax. If that doesn’t help, hold onto the back of a chair and stand about six inches away from it, sliding the cramped leg as far backward as you can, while keeping your heel on the floor. Bend the knee of your other leg as you slide the foot. Return the foot to the starting position and repeat if necessary. For a thigh cramp, keep both legs straight and lean forward at the waist, using a chair for balance and pull the calf up, stretching the thigh.
Quinine, an old-time remedy for malaria, has been shown to be effective in treating nighttime leg cramps, but the Federal Food and Drug Administration removed it from the over-the-counter market for a time, because the adverse effects were of great concern. Although quinine has been extensively studied, the conclusions have been varied. Some researchers deduce that it is a wonder drug for the treatment of leg cramps, while others find it to be no better than placebo (inactive substance). Since quinine can cause birth defects and miscarriages, pregnant women should never take it. The drug can cause ringing in the ears, headache, nausea, impaired vision, asthma, and heart and liver problems. However, some physicians prescribe quinine, and many of their patients do well with it, having no untoward effects. If you are taking quinine for leg cramps, you should be closely monitored by your physician.
One of the most effective methods of preventing, thus eliminating, leg cramps is to stretch your leg muscles for a few minutes before bedtime and after any type of exercise, including walking.
I am a registered pharmacist who has always been highly interested in good health, and who utilizes current knowledge and experience to achieve that objective. I believe this includes exercise, sensible eating, social interaction, and striving to keep your mental capacity. I’m not a specialist in any of these fields, but in my pharmacy career I have learned a lot. I worked in my family-owned drugstore for many years, and interacted with a variety of people and many different maladies, picking up invaluable hints and easy treatments of everyday medical issues. I want to share some of these with you, to perhaps make a difference in solving and preventing health problems. If I learned anything along the way, it’s that I can advise you when and if you should seek medical help. I also plan to share some recipes of mine that contribute to healthy eating. I am convinced that the old adage “you are what you eat” still reigns true. I’ve enjoyed my work all these years, especially counseling patients and hope that you derive some knowledge and comfort from what I have learned.