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Should You Take Calcium Supplements for Leg Cramps?

A reader reports that taking calcium supplements for leg cramps at night has worked for three decades. Others prefer magnesium or other minerals.
Should You Take Calcium Supplements for Leg Cramps?
White medication pills, calcium dietary supplement in the woman palm hand.

Many people complain that they are often awakened by severe nighttime leg cramps. They may have tender muscles in the morning as a consequence, but the biggest problem is the pain along with the sleep disruption. Doctors once prescribed quinine to prevent this occurrence, but that is no longer an option. (Some recommend tonic water instead, however.) One reader discovered, with her doctor’s help, that she did well on calcium supplements for leg cramps. Will you?

Trying Calcium Supplements for Leg Cramps:

Q. I suffered for seven years from really bad nighttime leg cramps. The numerous doctors I saw told me everything from “I don’t know” to “you’re getting old.”

Then my gynecologist told me a calcium deficiency could cause cramps and prescribed an over-the-counter calcium supplement. He said it would probably take about a week to notice relief. He was right! I still take calcium supplements after 30 years and have no trouble with leg cramps.

A. We have heard from hundreds of leg cramp sufferers about their remedies. Some people, like you, report success with minerals. They take magnesium, iron or calcium supplements for leg cramps. Others get no relief from such pills.

On the other hand, there is a wide range of remedies that people have found successful. What works for one person may not work for somebody else.

Most people report, however, that swallowing a spoonful of yellow mustard is surprisingly effective. Others insist that a sip of pickle juice works just as well. Trial and error seems to be the best way to learn what helps a given individual most.

Causes of Muscle Cramps:

Until about two decades ago, most experts attributed exercise-induced muscle cramps to dehydration or electrolyte imbalance (Journal of Sports Sciences, June 1997). Most likely they assumed that nighttime leg cramps had similar causes. Then, studies indicated that overexcited motor neurons resulted in the spasms we calll muscle cramps. The latest research suggests that this excitability originates in spinal neurons (Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, Aug. 2018). Unfortunately, although scientists are closer to understanding the causes of muscle cramps, they still haven’t come up with a sure-fire way to relieve them that will work for everyone.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Schwellnus MP et al, "Aetiology of skeletal muscle 'cramps' during exercise: A novel hypothesis." Journal of Sports Sciences, June 1997. DOI: 10.1080/026404197367281
  • Giuriato G et al, "Muscle cramps: A comparison of the two-leading hypothesis." Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, Aug. 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2018.05.006
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