So what is happening in your muscles when you experience a leg cramp?
“Studies done using an electromyograph, an instrument that detects electrical activity of the muscles, have shown that cramps originate from an over-excitability of the nerves, which renders the muscle unable to relax, causing feelings of intense cramping,” Gilbert says.
Finding relief from these nighttime leg cramps is largely based on determining the underlying cause and treating it. Possible causes include diabetes, hypothyroidism, peripheral vascular disease, varicose veins, medication side effects, end-stage renal disease, lumbar stenosis, osteoarthritis and cirrhosis. Other risk factors that may increase your chance of experiencing cramps include flat feet, a sedentary lifestyle, walking on concrete floors without appropriate shoe support, neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, certain medications, dehydration and low magnesium and potassium levels.
“Some studies have shown improvement with a good stretching routine,” Gilbert says. “In those types of cases, a referral to a physical therapist may prove helpful in setting up each individual patient with a successful stretching regimen for their needs.”
Gilbert stresses that prevention is key, though.
“Stay active, drink plenty of water and maintain a healthy weight,” she says.
If you are experiencing painful muscle contractions in your legs when you lay down to rest or find yourself waking up at night with leg cramps, you should speak to your physician, Gilbert says. He or she can help you determine if there is an underlying cause and refer you to a specialist if necessary.