Leg cramps at night can be very painful and make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
In fact, the pain is intense enough that it makes you want to scream or cry.
Most people experience leg cramps at some point in their lives, but for some, it’s a regular occurrence.
According to American Family Physician, as many as 60% of adults have experienced leg cramps at night (1)
But have you wondered why they happen?
Well, today we’re going to explore some of the possible causes of leg cramps at night.
But first, let’s take a look at what nighttime leg cramps actually are.
What are night leg cramps?
Leg cramps at night likewise known as nocturnal leg cramps are involuntary muscle contractions that usually affect the calf muscles. (2)
The pain is often described as a charley horse and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. (3)
In some cases, the pain is so severe that it can wake you up from a deep sleep.
The pain is usually felt in the calf muscles but can also affect the thighs, feet, and toes.
Causes of leg cramps at night
Generally speaking, most of the time, the cause of night leg cramps is unknown.
However, there are some potential underlying causes that have been identified.
Some of the most common causes of night leg cramps include:
1. Excessive muscle tension or strain
One of the reasons why you may experience leg cramps at night is because of muscle tension or strain.
If you overuse your muscles during the day, they can become tight and when you try to relax them at night, they may cramp up. (4)
For instance, if you spend a lot of time standing on your feet or if you engage in strenuous activity, it can lead to muscle tension and an increased risk of leg cramps at night.
Another possible cause of leg cramps at night is stress.
When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and this can cause muscle tension. (5)
In addition, stress can also lead to dehydration which is another possible cause of leg cramps at night (more on that below).
3. Poor blood circulation
Poor blood circulation can also lead to leg cramps at night.
When your muscles don’t get enough blood, they can’t function properly and are more likely to cramp. (5)
There are several things that can contribute to poor blood circulation, such as:
- Blood clots
- Varicose veins
- High blood pressure
- Sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time
During pregnancy, your body goes through a lot of changes, which can lead to leg cramps.
In fact, leg cramps are quite common among pregnant women in the second or third trimesters, particularly at night. (6)
The reason why pregnancy can cause nocturnal leg cramping is because of the increased weight and pressure on your legs.
As your baby grows, it puts more pressure on your blood vessels and nerves, which can cause the muscles to cramp.
Furthermore, according to some experts, low calcium levels during pregnancy can also lead to leg cramps. (7)
5. Electrolyte imbalance
The night cramps usually indicate an imbalance in the electrolyte balance.
Electrolytes are minerals that help to regulate muscle function. (8)
Some of the most important electrolytes include sodium, potassium, and calcium.
If you don’t have enough of these electrolytes in your body, it can lead to muscle cramping.
Dehydration can lead to nocturnal leg cramping, especially after diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or heavy sweating.
When you lose fluids, your body doesn’t have enough water to balance the electrolytes, which can lead to leg cramps. (9)
In addition, dehydration can also cause the muscles to become tight and overworked, which can also lead to cramping.
To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of fluids during the day, especially if you’re sweating a lot.
And if you have diarrhea or are vomiting, drink small sips of clear liquids often to replace the fluids you’re losing.
Learn more: 6 Natural Remedies For Dehydration
Certain medications can also cause nocturnal leg cramping.
For instance, diuretics are a type of medication that can lead to leg cramps because they promote fluid loss. (10)
Other medications that have been linked to leg cramps include:
- Birth control pills
- Some antipsychotic medications
If you experience leg cramps at night and you’re taking any of these medications, it’s important to talk to your doctor to see if they could be the cause.
The serious medical condition that can cause leg cramps
In rare cases, leg cramps can be a sign of a serious medical condition, such as:
- Kidney failure
- Nerve damage
- Liver disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Thyroid problems
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Heart disease
The bottom line
Nocturnal leg cramps are quite common and usually nothing to worry about.
In most cases, they can be relieved by stretching the affected muscle.
However, if you experience leg cramps on a regular basis, it’s important to talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Read more: 16 Foods to Help Prevent Muscle Cramps