Usually people associate leg cramps with the term "charley-horse," which are painful sensations of tightness and tension in the muscles of the leg. There are three primary areas where uncomfortable cramping may occur. These are the calf, the foot, and the thigh. Nocturnal leg cramps are muscle pains that occur during the night when a person is sleeping, causing sleep disturbances that may ultimately ruin a good night's sleep.
Although they may occur simultaneously with other sleep disorders, nocturnal leg cramps do not have a causal link to any known underlying medical disorders. They predominantly affect the elderly and pregnant women, two groups that tend to have relatively poor blood circulation in the limbs. Taking a step further back, nocturnal leg cramps are found in middle-aged and older populations, although they can afflict individuals of any age group.
A reason why a person may get nocturnal leg cramps is because he or she isn't drinking enough water. Water is important for transporting vitamins, minerals, and other substances throughout the body. Hydration is not the same when drinking caffeine or alcohol, since they are diuretics and end up dehydrating a person even further. Muscle needs hydration to function properly; without it cramping is more likely to occur. That is why athletes who do not replenish their water lost from sports and exercise end up with a charley-horse. Likewise, low water intake in an otherwise sedentary person can cause muscles twitches during sleep.
Another reason for nocturnal leg cramps is mineral deficiencies. Low levels of calcium, potassium, and magnesium are cited as causal factors of nocturnal leg cramps. While they can all be found in things we eat, some foods lose mineral levels when processed or refined. For example, nearly 85% of magnesium in grains is lost when finely milled.
Calcium deficiency is also responsible for muscle tremors and twitching at night and may lead to nocturnal leg cramps. However, milk and other dairy products do not make effective calcium replacement sources because of their phosphorus levels. A non-phosphorus containing calcium supplement is possibly the best alternative. Another mineral easily depleted is potassium, which is the most important mineral regarding muscle activity, serving as an electrolyte in the body and helping to balance body fluids. It also plays an essential role in muscle control and acts as a co-factor in muscle building.
To combat nocturnal leg cramps, there are several criteria to check. Make sure that your intake of calcium, potassium, and magnesium are at sufficient levels. Potassium-rich foods in your diet should include bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, and citrus fruits. Also, try to eliminate or reduce caffeine and sugar from your daily regimen. Check that you are properly hydrated by drinking up to the recommended eight glasses of water a day.
Finally, relieving any current discomfort with local massage, movement, or heat may help you avoid nocturnal leg cramps. For massage, rub the site of the tension in a circular rhythm to loosen the muscle tension beneath the skin. Stretch the calf muscles by holding your toes, pulling them up toward your knee and extending the leg straight out. This will exhaust the stretch reflex before you go to bed. If pain persists, apply a heat compress for about 10 minutes or take a warm bath or shower.