Creepy crawling sensations and tingling in the calves could be a sign of impaired nerve function, possibly due to a nutrient deficiency. Unusual feelings in your calves may be due to a potassium imbalance, among other things.
If you experience numbness, tingling, weakness or cramping persistently in your calves, it's time to see your doctor for a full work-up. A simple blood test can check your potassium levels to determine if that's the reason for the strange sensations in your calves.
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Potassium is one nutrient that could cause strange sensations in your calves if you’re deficient. Other possible reasons for a crawling sensation in your calves include vitamin B12 deficiency or a condition known as restless leg syndrome.
About Potassium and Your Body
Potassium is an essential micronutrient necessary to nerve function and muscle contraction. It's what's known as an electrolyte, so it regulates your heartbeat and helps with normal cell function, explains the National Institutes of Health.
Potassium is readily available in a wide variety of foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and dairy products. Examples of foods rich in potassium include bananas, orange juice, lentils, baked potatoes and milk.
If you eat a balanced diet, you should get all the potassium you need. But, some people are at risk of getting too little or too much. People with inflammatory bowel disease or those who use certain medications, particularly diuretics and laxatives, are at risk of a deficiency.
For people with a normally functioning system, the kidneys excrete any excess potassium. But, if you have kidney disease or use certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors, you may be at risk of excessive potassium intake.
Crawling Feelings in the Legs
Paresthesia is the fancy name for sensory conditions of tingling, pressure, numbness and temperature changes that occur in your hands, feet, legs and arms for no explained reason. The Genetic Testing Registry explains that paresthesia is often due to peripheral neuropathy or nerve damage.
Paresthesia can manifest as a crawling sensation in the legs caused by high potassium levels (hyperkalemia,) notes the National Kidney Foundation. High potassium levels are diagnosed when blood levels of the mineral are greater than 5.0. When your potassium level is greater than 6.0, it's considered a severe case of hyperkalemia. The severity of a case also depends on the speed of onset and other associated symptoms.
Low levels of potassium, or hypokalemia, can also lead to muscular symptoms, explains the Linus Pauling Institute — most often weakness and cramping rather than a tingling sensation. Your calves may feel knotty or cramp suddenly during activity if you're low on potassium.
But, don't rule out potassium deficiency as a possible cause of persistent tingling and numbness in your legs and feet, including the calves. Impaired nerve function due to a lack of potassium can cause these symptoms, explains MedlinePlus. You may have low levels of potassium due to certain antibiotics or diuretics, excessive diarrhea or vomiting — possibly caused by laxative abuse — chronic kidney disease, eating disorders and excessive sweating.
A small drop in potassium levels usually doesn't cause symptoms, but if the tingling is accompanied by heart palpitations, fatigue and weakness, it may be hypokalemia.
Correcting Potassium Levels
In most cases, your body can regulate your potassium levels properly. If, however, you have a sudden drop in potassium due to an illness or athletic event, you may need to take a supplement as advised by your doctor. Usually, dietary increases in foods rich in potassium can help balance out your levels.
For people who are prone to excessive potassium levels, you may need to follow a low-potassium diet as prescribed by your physician. Sometimes, you'll be given specific medications that help remove extra potassium from the body, such as diuretics or water pills and potassium binders.
Read more: Benefits and Side Effects of Vitamin B12
Other Causes of Tingling
While an imbalance in potassium is one cause of tingling in the calves, it's not the only one. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause nerve issues and tingling in the hands and feet and even up through the lower leg.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is fairly common, reports the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy. Vitamin B12 is found in animal-based foods, such as meat, fish and eggs. You may become deficient in this essential nutrient if you're a strict vegetarian or vegan or lack intrinsic factor, a compound in the stomach that absorbs the vitamin from food.
Certain autoimmune diseases, inflammatory bowel disease and drugs that reduce stomach acid (proton pump inhibitors) can also cause vitamin B12 deficiency.
When you don't have enough vitamin B12, you may experience serious anemia and nerve damage. Peripheral neuropathy may occur and is characterized by pain, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.
Read more: The Side Effects of Too Much Vitamin B12
A crawling sensation in the calves is also a symptom of restless leg syndrome. Restless leg syndrome affects 7 to 8 percent of the population. This neurological condition is characterized by a strong urge to move your legs accompanied by unpleasant sensations. You may notice that these crawling or tingling sensations are worse at night.
Low iron levels, not potassium, can lead to accelerated symptoms, explains the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation. Other nutrient deficiencies that can cause symptoms of restless legs include folate and some B vitamins. Only supplement with these nutrients if your doctor has recommended it.
Because a persistent crawling feeling in the calves can be caused by a number of issues, not just potassium imbalances, it's important to consult your doctor for evaluation. He can do a simple blood test to check your potassium levels as well as levels of vitamin B12 and iron. If these tests come back normal, he may do other tests to rule out issues such as diabetes or restless legs syndrome.
Read more: 4 Home Remedies to Stamp Out Leg Cramps
A healthy diet is always a good idea, however, to support good health and muscle function. And, cleaning up your diet may make your symptoms go away on their own. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish and seafood and healthy fats to support optimal health and function.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Restless Legs Syndrome"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Facts About High Potassium in Patients With Kidney Disease"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Potassium"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Potassium"
- Genetic Testing Registry: "Paresthesia"
- MedlinePlus: "Low Potassium Level"
- Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy: "Nutritional and Vitamin Deficiency Neuropathy"
- Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation: "Frequently Asked Questions"