Most people have suffered the excruciatingly painful experience of a leg cramp at least once in their life. A cramp is a painful spasm of the muscle, usually in the calf, but sometimes in the foot. The affected muscle feels very hard. Cramp may come on after doing more exercise than usual, or in regular sportspeople, after prolonged exercise, particularly in the heat.
There are probably several different reasons why cramp occurs. Imbalance of minerals such as sodium, calcium, magnesium or potassium is one possible risk factor. Poor circulation is another, and pregnant women are also particularly prone to cramp.
One of the most distressing forms of cramp is nocturnal (night) cramps, which often wake the sufferer — who is usually elderly.
Night cramps usually affect the calf muscles in the legs. Calf-stretching exercises performed several times each day may help prevent night cramps in some people. Sleeping with the legs bent and with loose covers or blankets on the bed may also help.
Quinine tablets were previously used to help prevent leg cramps, but are no longer recommended because they provide very little benefit and can cause serious side effects.
When cramp occurs it is best relieved by stretching the muscle. When the calf is affected, this can be done by pulling your toes towards you, massaging the muscle at the same time. Although they are extremely painful, leg cramps are more of a nuisance than anything else. Fortunately, they are not usually a sign of anything seriously wrong.
Last Reviewed: 29 January 2010