You've had the flu with all the typical symptoms like fever and fatigue before, but now, leg cramps seem to have appeared as well. Worse, those muscle spasms in your legs were so sudden and painful that they woke you up from sleep. Could the flu virus be the cause of these spasms in the legs?
"The flu alone does not normally cause muscle spasms," says Kathryn A. Boling, MD, a primary care provider at Mercy Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Maryland, part of Mercy Medical Center.
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"But a lot of times people get dehydrated when they're sick with the flu because they don't feel much like eating or drinking and their throat hurts." As a result, they become dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to muscle spasms and cramping, Dr. Boling says.
Dehydration May Be to Blame
When you're sick with the flu, you may experience vomiting and diarrhea, although having both these symptoms is more common in children than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you're also not eating, you can lose more fluids than your body needs, resulting in dehydration, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
When you're dehydrated, you lose electrolytes (essential minerals), including sodium and potassium, Dr. Boling says. The loss of electrolytes is one of many things that can cause the muscles in your legs to spasm or cramp up.
Muscle spasms are different from the muscle aches and pain you can feel all over your body when you have the flu, Dr. Boling says. These leg spasms are extremely painful and sharp, but usually only last a few minutes, she says. Muscle aches and pains from the flu are all over the body and can be longer-lasting, according to the CDC.
The best thing you can do is avoid getting dehydrated when you're sick. Make sure you're drinking a lot of fluids, according to the CDC. Water, clear broth and sports drinks are the best choices. Avoid alcohol and caffeine because they can speed dehydration. Suck on ice chips or freezer fruit pops even if you don't feel much like having anything else — it can help with preventing dehydration.
How to Ease the Pain
If despite your best efforts, you become dehydrated and suffer leg pain along with flu symptoms, Dr. Boling suggests these steps:
"The first thing to do is to hydrate, as that's the most likely reason you're having leg pain with your flu," Dr. Boling says.
Take Pain Medication
Acetaminophen works best for reducing your fever, she says, but it doesn't work as well for pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, suppress inflammation, and inflammation is what causes your pain, Dr. Boling says.
If you can, move around when the muscle spasms start. "Most of the time, when people get muscle cramps in their calf, standing and walking helps because it stretches the muscle that's tightening, and that will help it go away," Dr. Boling says.
Stretching works, too. She suggests the following: Put one palm flat on your knee of the cramping leg. With your other hand, grab your toes and flex your foot so your toes reach in the direction of your face. Hold for 20 seconds.
Stretching your legs before you go to sleep can help prevent a spasm, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you're feeling up to it, you might even do some light exercise, like walking in place or, if you have home equipment, walking on a treadmill or doing some stationary biking, before lying down for the night.
Consider Magnesium Supplements
If you continue to have painful muscle spasms after you've rehydrated, magnesium may help. "Start with 250 milligrams before you go to bed," Dr. Boling says. "If 250 milligrams doesn't work, you can go up to 500 milligrams." (Shop our picks for the best magnesium supplements.)
Just keep in mind if you're having diarrhea, you won't want to take magnesium oxalate. "That can cause you to poop more," she says.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you continue to have muscle spasms after you've recovered from the flu, check with your doctor. It could be another issue, and you and your doctor may need to investigate further, Dr. Boling says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.