After a long day, you're resting comfortably in bed. Close to drifting off, you leisurely stretch out your leg, when suddenly, a vicious leg cramp makes a surprise attack, cruelly banishing any thoughts of sleep. These painful and startling muscle contractions are only an occasional annoyance for some, but if you suffer from chronic leg cramps, they might signify a serious underlying medical condition.
Leg and foot cramps can be triggered by conditions affecting your hydration, blood flow, hormone levels, and your body's ability to absorb and process certain minerals. Kidney failure, alcohol abuse, cirrhosis, pregnancy, diarrhea, muscle damage and oral contraceptives can cause leg and foot cramps. Infrequent leg cramps might be due to temporary dehydration or lack of stretching after exercise. If you have consistent leg cramps that affect your sleep, you should see your doctor.
Drinking water throughout the day and eating a diet rich in electrolytes such as calcium and potassium can help you avoid painful cramps. The old adage that eating bananas combats leg cramps is true: Bananas are rich in potassium. If you're a vegan or lactose-intolerant, dairy-free calcium-enriched juices, cereals, and soy and almond milk are widely available. Most people have enough sodium in their diet, but if you avoid all salt, the lack of sodium in your diet might be at the root of your painful leg cramps.
Infrequent leg cramps might be due to inadequate stretching after exercise. Dr. Gabe Mirkin recommends doing "wall push-ups" before bedtime to help alleviate night cramps, in which you stand about three feet from the wall, lean forward until your hands touch the wall, then push back to a standing position, which should work your leg muscles. Make sure you're feeling a stretch on your calf, or the exercise won't be effective. Tight sheets and bedding can reduce the normal movement of your legs and feet and might restrict proper blood flow. Try keeping your sheets un-tucked at the bottom of your bed to avoid trapping your feet in a position that might lead to a muscle spasm. You can also apply a heating pad to areas prone to cramping to help loosen them up before bed. A hot bath or shower before you go to sleep also will relax your muscles.
If stretching or flexing your foot or leg doesn't ease a stubborn cramp, getting out of bed and "walking it off" can help work it out. Both massage and heat treatments penetrate into muscles, and a gentle massage followed by a hot bath will relax even the most persistent lingering cramp. Keep your breathing even and remain calm during a leg cramp. Holding your breath or tensing up against the pain can trigger more cramps or lengthen the duration of the existing cramp.