What are Night Cramps and how can they be treated?
Who would have thought, in the heedless, heady days of youth, as we sank into our beds so thoughtlessly, so confident of that long stretch of deep undisturbed sleep ahead of us, that those taken-for-granted nights would ever end?
Yet end they do, and oft times with a vengeance. How many of you wake up repeatedly through the night? Or manage to get a straight stretch of five hours or more unbroken sleep? How many struggle to function coherently through the day, shattered by the depredations of the night?
With age comes the nightmare of sleeplessness, struggling in vain to get to sleep at all, and then, when we finally drift off, to continue to stay that way. Tossing and turning, night after night, as we do battle with the seemingly endless trials and tribulations of later life: hot flushes, restless leg syndrome, hours of being exhausted beyond belief but unaccountably wide awake in the darkest stretches of the night, and that mind numbing desperation of ‘up at the crack of dawn’ syndrome.
Sleep as you try, you simply can’t. How many of you click onto this blog at 5am, just for something to do to pass the time till a respectable hour of the day finally dawns?
What are Night Cramps?
Amongst the worst of these opponents of a good night’s rest are the dreaded night cramps.
Just as you are at last sinking, hopefully, into sleep, the cramps attack, stabbing pain into your calves, and sometimes your thighs and the soles of your feet as well. A violent spasm in your leg jerks you agonisingly wide awake, pulled abruptly from the realms of deep sleep. It may last just a few seconds, or sometimes considerably longer, leaving you gasping with the pain, and tensed for any further attack.
Your muscle inexplicably seems to contract itself in half, triggering excruciating pain. The dread of not sleeping and the length of the looming endlessness of the night is exacerbated by the terror of the possible recurrent attacks that come unexpectedly, out of the blue. You are tense before you even lay your head on the pillow. Like a soldier in an army under siege - will they come tonight?
The older you get, the more likely you are to experience them, and if you are a woman your odds are slightly higher. Statistics show that each attack lasts an average of nine minutes, and they rarely come alone. You may have hours of these episodes, triggering at intervals throughout the night. I remember them from a brief period while I was first pregnant, but over the age of 50, they strike more than 60% of us, and for a further unlucky 20% of these, repeated trips to the doctor to ease the pain are a necessity rather than an option.
What triggers nocturnal leg cramps?
Think back and try to work out when they first started. Might there be some logical connection?
Did you start taking a new medication? Statins, diuretics or hormones have been shown to be linked to the onset of attacks.
Did you start a new exercise regime, change your existing one, or simply over-exercise? Muscle exhaustion is another trigger for onset.
Do you get them more in the summer than the winter? Everyone is different, and heat and dehydration may be connected for some people, cold and lack of sunlight for others.
Do you have any medical health issues? Over 60% of those with peripheral vascular disease, coronary heart disease or cirrhosis are likely to suffer with the condition. There are also links with Parkinson’s, motor neurone disease and peripheral neuropathy. One, admittedly small, study shows that 82% of patients with cancer suffer from severe leg cramps, perhaps from the nerve damage caused by their treatment. Night cramps are said to be associated with problems relating to circulation. Research also shows that narrowing of the arteries and osteoarthritis are connected to their onset, and that there is a link with diabetes and hypothyroidism.
Are night cramps the same as restless leg syndrome?
In a nutshell, no. Restless leg syndrome is uncomfortable and annoying but it is not acutely painful, and the crawling sensation associated with it can be relieved by moving. Night cramps can be agonising. No other word for it.
Immediate action for leg cramps
Your leg muscles need to be stretched out, however horrendous the exercise, to get rid of the pain. Try flexing your foot, put pressure on the muscle by walking or grab a packet of frozen peas from the freezer to numb the area.
What can you do longer term?
Try each of the possible solutions listed below, one at a time, and keep a diary to track any improvements. Grade the intensity of the pain of the next attack out of 10, and write down the number of attacks each night. It’s sometimes hard to remember how the initial problem was further down the line to recovery. Different solutions work for different people, so it’s worth trying all of them.
Natural remedies for night cramps
This would be my first go to solution of choice. Cramping of any kind is often linked to a deficiency of magnesium.
How can you find out if your levels are low?
Try out my favourite mineral check machine, the Vitastiq. This analyses the levels of 26 different vitamins and minerals in your body giving you a clear indication of what needs boosting where. Magnesium is one of them.
If you do suspect you might need a magnesium boost there are various ways of rapidly topping up. You can add a magnesium capsule to your daily collection of supplements. Make sure you buy magnesium glycinate, which is the easiest form of magnesium for your body to absorb. It relaxes muscles, calms anxiety and promotes deep sleep – so just what every night cramp sufferer needs.
A daily soak in an epsom salt filled bath is a relaxing way of taking in more magnesium. Epsom salts reduce the number and intensity of spasms, muscle pain and inflammation. Well worth a midnight dunk when those cramps just keep on coming.
And keep a bottle of magnesium oil spray by your bed. Squirt on the affected area before you go to bed and you may well escape the onset of an attack. Squirt again if the night cramps do rear their ugly heads in the middle of the night. It only takes around 26 seconds for anything sprayed on your skin (including toxic chemicals in shampoos and skin creams, so beware) to get taken up by your blood and begin circulating round your body, so this is a rapid way to get relief. Be careful of that spray, however, I found out to my cost that it stains.
The jury is out on this one with some research papers coming up with positive results and others finding that they make no difference at all. Presumably it works for the people who are more deficient than others to start with. Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge. They are found in your blood, sweat and urine and are essential for keeping your muscles and nervous system functioning optimally. If you are short of the electrolyte, calcium, this may be affecting the ability of your muscles to contract efficiently. Magnesium in electrolyte form allows the muscles to relax after the normal shortening and contracting process.
Test it for yourself. Buy an inexpensive packet of over the counter electrolyte sachets from the pharmacy and top up your levels.
The majority of us are deficient in B12. It’s one of the supplements I take religiously each and every day because it helps with the strengthening of the myelin sheath that surrounds our nerves - much in the same way that the rubber coating surrounds and protects the electricity wires within. Trouble starts if it wears thin. Several research studies have shown that B12 as a nasal spray, or in injection form (I spray mine under the tongue - 2,000 micrograms - which has been shown to be just as effective as injections) relieved chronic nocturnal leg cramps in elderly people.
Vitamin B Complex
Combining the B vitamins together in one easy to take pill was shown ‘to substantially improve nocturnal leg cramps in a group of elderly patients with high blood pressure in a double-blind trial.’ Patients took one capsule three times a day of either a placebo or a vitamin B-complex containing 250 mcg of vitamin B12 (as hydroxocobalamin), 30 mg of vitamin B6 (as pyridoxal phosphate), 50 mg vitamin B1 (thiamin, as fursultiamine), and 5 mg of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) per capsule. The average pain score decreased in the B-complex group, with almost 30% of the group reporting their leg cramps were completely gone and another 57 percent reporting significant improvement.
Consider whether you may be dehydrated. There is a connection between lack of water in the tissues and repeated attacks of nightly leg cramps. Check the colour of your urine to see if your problem could have that simple a solution. Dark yellow and you can add an additional litre of water to your usual quota. Clear and pale and still having attacks and there may a different issue at play. Up your daily water intake for a couple of weeks, to make sure but if your attacks do not lessen, then a different approach may be needed.
For some people, no matter how much water they drink, their body simply cannot not take it in. Drinking more and more is not the solution. Book in for a session with an experienced kinesiologist to identify and resolve whatever malfunction in your systems has been blocking your uptake, or invest in a pot of Patrick Flanagan’s Mega Hydrate, which powerfully and naturally re-hydrates the body.
Anecdotally, this mineral and vitamin rich tea has been used successfully to prevent night cramps. It contains large quantities of calcium, vitamins A, K and most of the Bs, alongside zinc, chromium, boron, selenium and sulphur. Try swopping it in for your usual cup of coffee or tea and drink it solidly throughout the day. Record any difference in number or intensity of attacks in the night’s that follow.
This is another natural anti-cramp protector. Add to your daily supplement regime or start eating potassium filled ripe bananas on a regular basis.
Fevertree tonic water
I met the two founders of Fever-Tree when they first started their business, and a nicer and more passionate about their product couple of people you could not have come across. Who knew that their particular brand of tonic water might just be the answer to the night cramps problem?
Anecdotally, quinine, even in small doses, has repeatedly been shown to relieve leg cramps. A low dose of quinine - 200 – 300 mg/day - was used as a standard treatment for night cramps until in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about multiple drug interactions with quinine, and stated that the potential for serious adverse effects outweighs the modest benefit of the drug.
A couple of glasses of tonic water contains about 20 mg of quinine, and for many people it still works miracles, so well worth giving it a try to see if this much lower dose does it for you. Presumably gin or vodka added won’t detract from its effects, but perhaps worth drinking virgin for a few days first. (Do not drink, however, if you are pregnant).
This is a weird one: pickle juice is an American ‘delicacy’ and is the liquid that comes straight out of the jar of what we know as gherkins - fermented green and spiky. Acid and not particularly pleasant, its efficacy is based on a 2010 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The researchers discovered that night cramps are caused by overactive nerve signals repeatedly instructing muscles to contract. Drinking pickle juice triggers a specific reflex in a nerve centre at the back of the throat, sending a signal to the nervous system to shut down the overactive neurons causing the cramp.
This is an anecdotal option, said to be effective at reducing the intensity and frequency of the cramps. There was no science that I could find to back it up but the acetic acid in mustard (contained in vinegar) is said to trigger the body to produce more acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that prompts muscles to work.
And last but not least, don’t ignore the emotional component
It is essential to break the habit of being continually on edge as night time draws in. Like Pavlov’s dogs, it’s a pattern that’s been repeated too many times, creating an expectation of not being able to sleep solidly throughout the night combined with the fear of the likelihood of encroaching pain. It will keep you on permanent fight/flight alert in a state of psychological tension. It’s emotionally tiring, and physically, it drains your adrenals, triggering a cascade of unhelpful chemical reactions. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) will break the pattern, removing the perpetual tension and restoring calm to your nervous system. Add a daily session of Yoga Nidra and that should clinch it.
There is a long-established school of thought that links specific emotional issues with physical symptoms. I checked the ‘meaning’ of night cramps in each of the 5 different volumes that I have that deal with the connections. They more or less concurred that it was a tightening up due to fear of change at some deep level.
Are you ‘holding on for dear life’ to some idea or feeling or situation, out of a belief that to let go is to bring on disaster? Are you refusing to move forward, rejecting change, fearing what the future may hold? Feeling unsafe in some way?
Does any of that ring in any way true for you? And if so, is there anything you can do to take steps to resolve the issue? Speak your fears out loud; ask for professional help. In many cases, once the mental connection is resolved, the physical issue disappears. Worth considering perhaps.
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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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