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Leg cramps are the painful result of the spontaneous tightening of muscle tissue, below the knee, usually in the calf area and sometimes in the foot. These contractions often happen at night and more often affect older rather than younger people.
Although leg cramps at night are a very common condition, extensive research has not been able to determine a singular definitive cause. However, there are some specific activities and risk factors that can contribute to the development of leg cramps.
If the necessary mineral levels of magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium are insufficient, supplementation is recommended. Many have found that stretching before going to bed helps to prevent cramps. Application of heat after stretching may also be useful. Sudden motions or undue extension of the feet while in bed may trigger a cramping response. Unusual positions of the feet while sleeping may also cause the onset of leg cramps at night.
When cramps occur, it is a good idea to attempt to exercise and stretch the affected leg. One method is to lean forward against the wall, keeping the affected foot flat on the floor and bring the knee to a straightened position. This puts pressure across the back of the calf. Stretching is also useful to return the muscle to its resting position until the contraction subsides. While in bed or sitting down, grab the ball of the foot and pull upward in opposition to the cramp. Others attempt to massage the cramping muscle, take a warm bath, or apply ice massages to the muscles.
Placing a bar of soap between the sheets by your feet overnight has been reported by a number of people to work for them. And this after trying many other things and not believing it would work. The mechanism of action is unknown, and YMMV.
What can you do when natural therapies aren't helping? Medications such as diphenhydramine hydrochloride (Benadryl) may be required. Certain muscle relaxants like meprobamate (Equanil, MB-TAB, Miltown, Trancot) and verapamil hydrochloride (Calan, Covera, Isoptin, Verelan) may be prescribed, though this is an off-label use.
For safety reasons, quinine is no longer recommended as a treatment, but some find benefit from drinking tonic water before bed. Caution is advised – check with your doctor - even though quinine has been demonstrated to decrease the frequency of cramps, but not their intensity or duration. [ Should people with nocturnal leg cramps drink tonic water and bitter lemon? Psychol Rep. 1999 Apr;84(2):pp.355-67.]
Hopefully, by reading this, you have found some effective suggestions to help ease the discomfort or even eliminate nocturnal / nighttime leg cramps.
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Calcium: The body's most abundant mineral. Its primary function is to help build and maintain bones and teeth. Calcium is also important to heart health, nerves, muscles and skin. Calcium helps control blood acid-alkaline balance, plays a role in cell division, muscle growth and iron utilization, activates certain enzymes, and helps transport nutrients through cell membranes. Calcium also forms a cellular cement called ground substance that helps hold cells and tissues together.
Diabetes Mellitus: A disease with increased blood glucose levels due to lack or ineffectiveness of insulin. Diabetes is found in two forms; insulin-dependent diabetes (juvenile-onset) and non-insulin-dependent (adult-onset). Symptoms include increased thirst; increased urination; weight loss in spite of increased appetite; fatigue; nausea; vomiting; frequent infections including bladder, vaginal, and skin; blurred vision; impotence in men; bad breath; cessation of menses; diminished skin fullness. Other symptoms include bleeding gums; ear noise/buzzing; diarrhea; depression; confusion.
Dialysis: The artificial process of cleaning wastes from the blood when kidneys fail.
Diuretic: An agent increasing urine flow, causing the kidneys to excrete more than the usual amount of sodium, potassium and water.
Magnesium: An essential mineral. The chief function of magnesium is to activate certain enzymes, especially those related to carbohydrate metabolism. Another role is to maintain the electrical potential across nerve and muscle membranes. It is essential for proper heartbeat and nerve transmission. Magnesium controls many cellular functions. It is involved in protein formation, DNA production and function and in the storage and release of energy in ATP. Magnesium is closely related to calcium and phosphorus in body function. The average adult body contains approximately one ounce of magnesium. It is the fifth mineral in abundance within the body--behind calcium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. Although about 70 percent of the body's magnesium is contained in the teeth and bones, its most important functions are carried out by the remainder which is present in the cells of the soft tissues and in the fluid surrounding those cells.
Mineral: Plays a vital role in regulating many body functions. They act as catalysts in nerve response, muscle contraction and the metabolism of nutrients in foods. They regulate electrolyte balance and hormonal production, and they strengthen skeletal structures.
Nervous System: A system in the body that is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, ganglia and parts of the receptor organs that receive and interpret stimuli and transmit impulses to effector organs.
Potassium: A mineral that serves as an electrolyte and is involved in the balance of fluid within the body. Our bodies contain more than twice as much potassium as sodium (typically 9oz versus 4oz). About 98% of total body potassium is inside our cells. Potassium is the principal cation (positive ion) of the fluid within cells and is important in controlling the activity of the heart, muscles, nervous system and just about every cell in the body. Potassium regulates the water balance and acid-base balance in the blood and tissues. Evidence is showing that potassium is also involved in bone calcification. Potassium is a cofactor in many reactions, especially those involving energy production and muscle building.
Sodium: An essential mineral that our bodies regulate and conserve. Excess sodium retention increases the fluid volume (edema) and low sodium leads to less fluid and relative dehydration. The adult body averages a total content of over 100 grams of sodium, of which a surprising one-third is in bone. A small amount of sodium does get into cell interiors, but this represents only about ten percent of the body content. The remaining 57 percent or so of the body sodium content is in the fluid immediately surrounding the cells, where it is the major cation (positive ion). The role of sodium in the extracellular fluid is maintaining osmotic equilibrium (the proper difference in ions dissolved in the fluids inside and outside the cell) and extracellular fluid volume. Sodium is also involved in nerve impulse transmission, muscle tone and nutrient transport. All of these functions are interrelated with potassium.
Thyroid: Thyroid Gland: An organ with many veins. It is at the front of the neck. It is essential to normal body growth in infancy and childhood. It releases thyroid hormones - iodine-containing compounds that increase the rate of metabolism, affect body temperature, regulate protein, fat, and carbohydrate catabolism in all cells. They keep up growth hormone release, skeletal maturation, and heart rate, force, and output. They promote central nervous system growth, stimulate the making of many enzymes, and are necessary for muscle tone and vigor.