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    Why Leg Cramps Happen & When To Worry

    Table of contents

      Leg cramps are painful, involuntary muscle contractions that can affect your sleep, exercise, and generally the quality of life.  If you get leg cramps frequently, or if they are so painful that they are keeping you from routine activities, it may be a cause for worry. Whether these cramps are the outcome of your lifestyle habits or the use of medications, medical help is necessary to ease the pain and discomfort they are causing. At Downtown Vein & Vascular Center, the expert doctors focus on identifying the causes of cramps and recommend a customized treatment plan and remedies to ease the muscle spasms. Dr. Sergei Sobolevsky is a top rated endovascular specialist and pinpoints the source of your pain to eliminate it from your life.

      What Is Leg Cramping?

      Cramps in the legs are common, usually a harmless condition where the muscles in your legs suddenly become tight and painful. They occur in the calf muscles, although they can affect any part of the leg, including the feet, thigh, knee, or even ankle.

      Leg cramps are also known as a Charley Horse, a muscle spasm when the muscle suddenly tightens up on its own and cannot relax. These cramps can happen anywhere in the body but mostly occur in the legs and feet. Even though cramps can be painful, they can be relieved quickly and are not a cause for concern. They do not cause any lasting damage or complications unless they are resulting from some underlying condition.

      What Is Leg Cramping

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      Who Gets Leg Cramps?

      The older you are, the more likely you are to have leg cramps. It is because your tendons, the tissues that connect the muscles to the bone, naturally shorten as you age. You are also more likely to get them if you are a woman.

      Most people get these leg cramps at night, while they are sleeping. These cramps can last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes, depending on the location and the reasons behind them.

      What Do Leg Cramps Feel Like?

      A leg cramp feels like a clenched, contracted muscle that has tightened into a knot. The muscles cramp when they contract involuntarily and leave the leg temporarily immobile. Cramps can be severely uncomfortable, painful, or even unbearable.

      Your muscles in the affected area may hurt for hours after the cramps have subsided. Leg cramps are more common in the calf muscles, but they can also occur in the thighs or feet.

      What Causes Leg Cramps?

      Some leg cramps happen for no known reason. They are called idiopathic cramps. Cramps resulting as a symptom or complication of a health condition are known as secondary leg cramps.

      Several factors and conditions can lead to leg cramps. The most common causes of leg cramps include:

      • Dehydration
      • Muscle overuse
      • Muscle strain or trauma
      • Venous insufficiency

      However, you may experience leg cramps more often if you are:

      • Pregnant
      • A habitual smoker
      • Older and/or have diminished muscle mass
      • Suffer from liver disease, high cholesterol, or diabetes
      • Take certain medications, like diuretics

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      Understanding the Triggers for Cramps?

      There are a variety of factors that can lead to leg cramps, but at the same time, there is no explanation for these cramps. As they usually happen at night when our legs are slightly bent, and the feet are pointed downward, experts suggest this tightening can trigger a spasm.

      If you are trying to prevent these painful episodes, it is best to minimize the risks or triggers that can increase their likelihood.

      Lifestyle Triggers

      Certain activities or movements increase the risk of leg cramps. They include exercises that rely heavily on the leg muscles, such as:

      • Recreational running
      • Weight training the legs
      • Sports that require a lot of running, such as soccer or basketball

      According to healthcare experts, muscle fatigue is a leading cause of leg cramps for most people. The risk for cramps increases when these muscles are fatigued during hot weather or your muscles are not properly hydrated. You can prevent leg cramps resulting from athletic activities by drinking plenty of water and going easy on the muscles. Also, it is best to avoid heavy exercise when you are fatigued.

      Medical Reasons

      Pregnancy, as well as certain medical conditions, increases your risk of leg pain and cramps. It is necessary to see your doctor if you are pregnant or have any of these conditions and experience more leg cramps than usual.

      • Addison’s disease
      • Alcohol use disorder
      • Kidney failure
      • Thyroid issues
      • Parkinson’s disease
      • Type 2 diabetes
      • Sarcoidosis
      • Cirrhosis
      • Vascular disease

      In addition, medications can contribute to leg cramps, such as:

      • Birth control pills
      • Diuretics
      • Naproxen (Aleve)
      • Albuterol, an asthma medication
      • Statins

      Are Leg Cramps a Sign of Something Serious?

      Leg cramps that occur too frequently or cause intense pain may be a sign of a serious health condition. If you are concerned about your unusual symptoms or suspect an underlying cause, call your healthcare provider to have your condition accurately diagnosed and treated.

      Treating Leg Cramps

      If you experience leg cramps occasionally, it is not a concerning matter and can be managed with lifestyle modifications and home remedies.

      Some important steps you can take to prevent and relieve leg cramping include:

      • Wear compression stockings if you have leg swelling too
      • Get sufficient amounts of potassium and magnesium
      • Stay hydrated by drinking a sufficient amount of water or electrolyte drinks
      • Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake as they cause dehydration
      • Warm up before exercise and cool down afterward properly
      • Stretch regularly before and after a workout
      • Use a heating pad or take a warm bath to ease the ongoing cramps, as heat can relax the muscles and ensure a better flow of blood
      • Take pain-relieving medications if your cramps are severe and affect your movement
      • Massage the affected area to ease the knotted or contracted muscle

      If you experience cramping during a workout, stop exercising immediately to prevent any damage to the muscle or veins. Reposition your leg to find comfort and stretch the affected area until your symptoms have subsided. Doing your best to avoid risk factors and avoiding medications with leg cramps as a side effect can prevent them from recurring.

      Read more: Ankle Discoloration: A Sign of Vein Disease

      When to Worry About Leg Cramps?

      If leg cramps continue without any known reasons, you experience severe discomfort or notice swelling and redness of the skin, it may be a sign of some medical condition that needs proper diagnosis. The healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms, go through your family history, examine you physically, and may even recommend some tests, including ultrasound, to determine if your cramps or spasms are resulting from some vascular disorder.

      If venous insufficiency is the reason behind your leg cramps, the doctor will look for blood clots and other symptoms and figure out the best way to prevent further discomfort. Venous insufficiency can lead to swelling in the blood vessels, which creates cramping. If left untreated, venous insufficiency can cause other potentially life-threatening conditions. A doctor may recommend minimally invasive surgical options to prevent clotting and venous issues that are causing cramps.

      Leg cramps can be unpredictable and debilitating, especially if they are affecting your general quality of life. They are common and temporary and can be managed with lifestyle changes and remedies that help to manage the symptoms. Dr. Sergei A. Sobolevsky uses the latest diagnostic tools to determine your vein condition and the reasons behind these cramps. Based on your unique symptoms, he comes up with a customized plan specifically designed to ease your pain and discomfort and prevent these spasms from occurring again.

      Dr. Sergei Sobolevsky (Vein & Vascular Specialist)

      Sergei Sobolevsky, MD, is a leading specialist in endovascular medicine with experience in vascular and interventional radiology. Dr. Sobolevsky has decades of experience in the field, with over 25,000 procedures performed, accumulating extensive experience in image-guided minimally invasive medicine, diagnosing and treating a range of conditions.

      Dr. Sobolevsky earned his Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree in 1997 from the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He received his specialty clinical training in vascular and interventional radiology at Harvard University. Later, he earned his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Recognized as a Castle Connolly Top Doctor and named to the Top Doctors New York Metro Area in 2020, 2021, and 2022, Dr. Sobolevsky is licensed in multiple states, has delivered presentations at numerous institutions in the US and abroad, and now acts as a clinical advisor for the biomedical industry. He also held multiple positions in the field during his career, including Chief of Vascular and Interventional Radiology at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, NY, Senior Vice President in Clinical and Regulatory Affairs at Artann Laboratories in North Brunswick, NJ, and Medical Director at the American Endovascular and Amputation Prevention Center in Brooklyn.

      More About Dr. Sobolevsky