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Nocturnal leg cramps can lead to a rude awakening: You're suddenly sleepless and in pain in the middle of the night. Symptoms of nocturnal leg cramps include excruciating contractions of the calf muscles, and sometimes of the foot muscles as well.

[Credit: ©]
Credit: ©

Nocturnal leg cramps are true cramps and not spasms. The muscle remains in a cramped and contracted position, which accounts for the intensity of the pain. If you touch the affected calf, you may be surprised to discover that your muscles feel very hard, almost like concrete, a measure of the power of the cramp.

Studies have shown increased electrical activity in the affected muscles, but doctors still don't know what causes nocturnal leg cramps. In some cases, it may be a fluid imbalance or a vitamin deficiency.

Treatment for leg cramps is straightforward and easy to follow. Avoid tight bed covers, which can lead to pointing of the toes and subsequent cramps. Stretch your calf muscles for about five minutes nightly before getting into bed. If you have a cramp, pull your toes back (don't point them), and, if necessary, put your foot on the floor and lean forward.

Some evidence suggests that a potassium deficiency may cause nocturnal leg cramps. Many sleepers have eliminated their cramps entirely just by making sure they eat plenty of potassium rich foods, including

  • Bananas, apricots, nectarines, dates, grapes, or raisins

  • Beans

  • Cabbage/broccoli family of vegetables

  • Oranges, grapefruit, and their juice

  • Pork and lamb

  • Potatoes and corn

  • Saltwater fish (for example, tuna)

  • Tomatoes and tomato juice

Of course, if you wake up with a leg cramp, a banana's not going to do you much good, so here are some tips to relieve cramps immediately:

  • Apply a hot compress to the cramped muscles.

  • Massage the cramped muscles.

  • Stretch and flex. Lie on your back in bed, lift your legs, extend them toward the ceiling, and then point your toes to the ceiling and flex them slowly back toward your calf. Repeat this flex and stretch until the cramps stop. For an extra good stretch, grab your toes while still in this position and pull them down toward your knees. You'll feel this stretch working in the back of the calf muscles.

Other studies have linked cramps to dehydration. Staying adequately hydrated at all times is a good idea for many reasons, so add preventing nocturnal leg cramps to the list. Finally, pregnant women, dieters, people taking diuretics,(medications that increase the amount of urine you produce) and people who've experienced a bout with vomiting and diarrhea may also experience leg cramps because their calcium and phosphorus levels get out of whack. If you fall into any one of these categories and you have a bout of nocturnal leg cramps, consult with your doctor for the best course of treatment.

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