Imagine this: You’re sleeping peacefully, with not a care in the world. Then, like a bolt of lightning, you are wide awake and in excruciating pain. A muscle in your leg is contracting so strongly that it wakes you out of a sound sleep. To ease the pain, you need the muscle to relax. But coaxing a muscle to let go can be tricky. If such sudden nighttime leg pains occur frequently, they can wreak havoc with your rest. And that can have negative consequences for your overall health.
“When I get severe leg cramps, my calf muscle becomes hard as a rock. The pain is so severe that I panic until I can stop it. It’s rather like being asleep and getting woken up with a hammer blow to the thumb.
I tried massaging my calf. That didn’t work. The pain doesn’t quit until I can flex my calf muscle. During a leg cramp, my foot is in a position as if I had on high heels. Forcing the foot into a more normal position by pushing the toes and heel onto the floor usually stops the pain. This hurts, but it works.
Every time I have gotten this kind of cramp it was because I was dehydrated. Any sports trainer will tell you that cramps are a sign of dehydration.”
Although dehydration may lead to mineral imbalances that could contribute to muscle spasms, doctors don’t always know why some people develop nighttime leg cramps. They often don’t have good treatments, either. Many physicians prescribe quinine, a natural medicine derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. It has been used for centuries to treat fevers, especially those due to malaria. While this drug can be effective against leg cramps, there are a number of potentially serious side effects associated with quinine. They include ringing in the ears, rash, and, rarely, liver damage or life-threatening anemia.
Consequently, it makes sense to try home remedies or dietary supplements first to see if they work. That’s true even though some of the home remedies may seem a little strange. What works like a charm for one person may be totally worthless for someone else. This is truly a case of trial and error.
Health care professionals generally consider leg cramps more of a nuisance than a serious health problem. Nonetheless, anyone who suffers from nighttime leg cramps knows that they can disrupt sleep, and that can eventually have consequences for health as well as mood. Finding the remedy that suits you best may require some trial and error. Don’t be afraid of the home remedies: They may seem silly, but since the only prescription treatment, -quinine, can have such serious adverse effects, we think they are worth considering.
“I had terrible leg cramps, and nothing helped. Then my husband got some liquid calcium, and that worked immediately. I have not had another leg cramp.
He decided to try mustard for leg cramps, but he still had leg cramps and really did not savor the mustard. He decided to try turmeric, an ingredient in mustard. He took 1/2 teaspoon at bedtime and 1/2 teaspoon at breakfast. BINGO! This worked great. Not only did it cure his leg cramps, but it also eased the pain in his hip and feet.
He recommended I try it for my awful foot problems. It felt like an ice pick was stuck in the ball of my foot. As soon as I started taking the turmeric, I had no more pain. I can now wear my lovely high-heeled shoes on Sunday without suffering.”
- Tuck a bar of ordinary soap under the bottom sheet when you make the bed. It should be near your legs, and may need to be replaced every 6 weeks or so. We don’t know why it would prevent leg cramps, but many readers report success–and we know of no side effects.
- Swallow a teaspoonful of yellow mustard–the inexpensive kind sometimes dispensed in individual packets. We think it may be the turmeric in the mustard that helps. This remedy can work very quickly, though some readers have reported heartburn as a result.
- Sip about an ounce of pickle juice. Some pickles may contain turmeric, so perhaps that explains why this helps some people fight off muscle cramps so quickly. Or, it may provide some missing minerals. Pickle juice is high in sodium, so this home remedy is not for anyone on a low-sodium diet.
- Baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon in 8 ounces of water, is reputed to fight painful leg cramps quickly. Baking soda contains sodium, so it is not for anyone on a low-salt regimen.
- Pinch your upper lip firmly between your thumb and forefinger until the cramp eases. This may have the effect of providing a distracting pain that is under your control. Many readers claim it is helpful, although we have not been impressed.
- Stretch leg muscles for several minutes before bedtime.
- Consume plenty of potassium-rich vegetables, especially low-sodium V8 juice. Increasing potassium intake seems to help prevent leg cramps.
- Take a supplement of 300 to 500 milligrams of magnesium a day. Reduce the dose if this gives you diarrhea. Avoid magnesium if you have kidney disease.
- Try 4 ounces of Pedialyte after vigorous exercise to replenish minerals and prevent muscle cramps.
- Consider B-complex vitamins to prevent cramps. Keep the dose of vitamin B6 under 100 milligrams per day to avoid nerve damage.
- Ask your doctor about quinine. It is available by prescription (or at low doses in some brands of tonic water). Severe side effects are uncommon but may be life-threatening, especially a blood disorder called ITP.