These intense muscle pains – sometimes known as “charley horses” – are usually felt in your calf, foot or thigh, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes at a time2.
However, they can have a lasting impact on your sleep patternand daily routine, especially if they happen frequently.
Luckily, there are several ways to ease, treat and preventnocturnal leg cramps. Read on to learn more about leg pain causes, and potential treatments that could help.
Causes of Leg Pain and Cramps at Night
It can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of our leg pain3. Some leg cramps are ‘idiopathic’, which means they have no known cause2. But there are several popular theories around the causes of calf cramps and thigh pain at night,including:
- Muscle fatigue – too much high-intensity exercise is one of the most common links to leg pain, as overworking your muscles can cause them to cramp during the night1
- Nerve issues – a pinched nerve or spinal cord injury can put pressure on your nerves, causing muscle cramps in your legs4
- Sitting or standing for long periods – this can restrict blood supply, which can increase the chances of leg pain or cramps2
- Pregnancy – pregnant women often experience leg cramps at night, usually in the second or third trimester5
- Medications – leg cramps can be a side effect of certain medications, such as blood pressure drugs, diuretics and statins3
Age can also be a factor, as the risk of leg pain and other pains at night increases as you get older3.
Health Conditions Associated with Leg Pain and Cramps at Night
Some cramps in the calfs, feet or elsewhere may be linked to an underlying condition, such as2:
- Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) – a narrowing of the peripheral arteries that carry blood from your heart to other parts of the body. Lower-extremity ‘PAD’ is the most common type, and reduces blood flow to your legs and feet6
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) – similar to the above, but to do with the coronary arteries that bring blood to your heart7
- Spinal stenosis – a narrowing of spaces within your spine, which can put pressure on your nerves8
- Kidney failure – where one or both kidneys no longer work2
- Diabetic neuropathy – a type of nerve damage that may affect up to 50% of people with diabetes9
Some people may also confuse Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) with leg cramps while sleeping, but they are not the same condition. RLS doesn’t tend to be painful either3.
Symptoms and Types of Leg Pain at Night
People may experience muscle cramps, intense pain or aching legs at night across a variety of areas. Different types of leg pain while sleeping include:
- Calf cramps at night – these tend to be the most common 1. They usually involve your gastrocnemius or soleus muscles, but can also affect other parts of your leg10 too
- Foot pain – the muscles in the sole of your foot function the same way as your calf muscles, so some nocturnal cramps may cause a tightening here10
- Thigh aches – you may experience thigh pain at night from nocturnal cramps
- Aching knees at night – these could be a sign of injury, inflammation or arthritis11. A combination of knee and ankle pain at night can also be an indication12
When it comes to the symptoms themselves, this will depend on the type of nocturnal leg pain. You might experience sore legs, throbbing knee pain or even bone pain in the leg.
As well as an initial muscle tightening or spasm from the leg cramps, up to 20% of patients experience daily symptoms too1.
If the issue persists or you experience chronic cramps, you should talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
Nighttime Leg Pain Treatment and Relief
While leg cramps usually only last a few minutes or even seconds, they can cause severe leg pain at night, making you uncomfortable and disturbing your sleep. Given how important sleep is for our health and well-being, it’s important to manage this issue.
Fortunately, there are some leg pain remedies and prevention tactics you can try to help treat your sore legs, and sleep better.
Home Remedies For Leg Pain and Cramps
Various leg pain relief techniques can help ease your discomfort when a muscle cramp strikes, including2:
- Stretching – straighten your leg and flex your foot to stretch out any cramping muscles
- Massage – using your hands or a foam roller, massage any knots in the muscles to help them relax
- Movement – get out of bed and press your feet against the floor, or walk around the room to aid muscle movement and blood circulation
- Applying a cold or hot press – try using a heating pad or ice pack on the painful area of your leg to ease the discomfort. Just be careful not to burn your skin.
- Over-the-counter pain relief – TYLENOL® PM Extra Strength Nighttime Pain Reliever & Sleep Aid contains 500mg acetaminophen, which can provide temporary leg pain relief, and help with falling asleep.
OTC medication can also help if you’re suffering from back pain at night too.
How To Prevent Nightly Leg Pain and Cramps
Looking for ways to put a stop to your nocturnal leg cramps? Try out these simple tips that might help reduce them13:
- Give your legs a good stretch before bed with our simple guides to calf stretches and hamstring stretches
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated
- Make sure your everyday shoes have the right amount of support for your feet
- Untuck the covers at the bottom of your bed so your legs aren’t restricted during the night
When To See A Doctor About Nocturnal Leg Pain
If you’re experiencing frequent, unbearable or long-lasting leg cramps at night – which interrupt your sleep and disturb your daily life – you should speak to a doctor to see if there is any underlying cause2.
You should also seek immediate medical attention if you experience leg pain after being exposed to an infection, through a cut in your skin for example, or a poisinous toxin, such as lead2.
Your legs might only hurt at night as the lack of movement can cause joints or muscles to feel stiff. Any high-intensity exercise or activity you’ve been doing throughout the day may finally be felt11.
It’s unclear whether nocturnal leg cramps are definitively linked to dehydration1. That said, dehydration is often associated with other muscle cramps, as fluids and what they contain help your muscles contract, relax and stay lubricated14.
Bone pain is less common than muscle pain and usually appears in the form of a fracture, infection or underlying condition15. Muscle pain may feel like a steady ache or sharp pain, depending on the cause, and is sometimes felt alongside muscle spasms and cramps16.
Be sure to always read and follow the product label of the OTC pain reliever and talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
1. Nocturnal Leg Cramps. https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2012/0815/p350.html
2. Leg Cramps. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14170-leg-cramps
3. Night leg cramps. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/night-leg-cramps/basics/causes/sym-20050813
4. Muscle Cramps. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21190-muscle-cramps
5. Pregnancy week by week. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/leg-cramps-during-pregnancy/faq-20057766
6. What is Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)? https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease/about-peripheral-artery-disease-pad
7. Coronary Artery Disease. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16898-coronary-artery-disease
8. Spinal stenosis. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-stenosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352961
9. Diabetic neuropathy. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetic-neuropathy/symptoms-causes/syc-20371580
10. Weiner IH, Weiner HL.Nocturnal Leg MuscleCramps. JAMA. 1980;244(20):2332–2333. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/372582
11. Knee pain. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/knee-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20350849
12. Ankle Pain. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/15295-ankle-pain
13. Night leg cramps Print. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/night-leg-cramps/in-depth/health-tip/art-20048811
14. Muscle cramp. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/syc-20350820
15. Bone pain or tenderness. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003180.htm
16. Muscle Pain. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17669-muscle-pain
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