Nocturnal leg cramps are sudden, painful muscle contractions at night or while sleeping. They typically affect the calf muscles but can also occur in the thighs or feet.

A young woman dealing with nocturnal leg cramps.
Nocturnal leg cramps are painful muscle, sprain, or cramp aches.

“Nocturnal leg cramps” and “Charlie horses” are often used interchangeably. Still, they generally refer to the same phenomenon—a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction or tightening, usually in the legs. Trying to get sleep during a leg cramp episode is hard. You could even experience long-term pain where the contractions occur.

The exact cause of nocturnal leg cramps is often unclear, but several factors may contribute to their occurrence.

Nocturnal Leg Cramps Occur at Night

While this may seem obvious (hence the name “nocturnal”), leg cramps are more common at night simply because your body enters a recovery period. During the day, for instance, you’re more active and more prone to muscle fatigue. But you can also get the water and nutrients you need to react to the demands on your body. Nighttime is different. You are asleep or getting ready to sleep, and your body can’t get what it needs to repair.

As your body slows at night, you might also be more prone to circulatory issues or other medical conditions. Medical issues often flare up when your medicines are at the lowest point of potency in your body. And this will occur at night.

Daytime Activities Can Also Cause Nighttime Cramps

Too much exercise and insufficient conditioning are the biggest culprits in nocturnal leg cramps in healthy bodies. Intense or prolonged physical activity can lead to muscle cramps, especially if the muscles are not properly conditioned or have inadequate recovery time.

How to Manage Nocturnal Leg Cramps

To manage and prevent leg cramps, stay hydrated. Drink an adequate amount of water throughout the day to maintain proper hydration. Perform regular stretching exercises, especially before bedtime, to improve flexibility and reduce the risk of cramps.

Dealing with Foot Cramps

Foot stretches are a great way to relieve cramping in the foot.

If you experience foot cramping, one easy trick is to push down on the floor with your feet to stretch the inner arch muscles. This pulls on the inner foot muscles to relieve cramping and stop pain.

It’s best to stretch for about 15 to 20 seconds per foot and for several rounds. Then, walk a little to relax the muscles before returning to bed.

Dealing with Leg Cramps

Massage helps reduce leg pain caused by muscle cramps.

Simple muscle massages into the calf or thigh help relieve leg cramps. Having a friend press into your muscle with their fingers for several minutes is all you need; however, you can also do this by pressing on the muscle with your knuckles.

Consider adding basic leg stretches to any massage to ensure the entirety of your leg is stretched before laying back down.

If nocturnal leg cramps persist or are severe, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation and appropriate management strategies. STARS Physical Therapy can help. Contact us anytime for an evaluation and treatment plan.


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