In order to move our body, our skeletal muscles can only contract and relax. Normally, our muscle contractions are voluntary and do not cause us any pain. However, if involuntary, sustained, muscle contractions occur, a painful muscle cramp or spasm results. Muscle cramps are very common in the lower legs. Muscle cramps in the legs are sometimes referred to as a “charley horse.”
A muscle cramp usually only lasts a few minutes, but it can be painful and very disruptive, especially if it happens at night. Lower leg cramps can be caused by fatigue of a muscle due to exercise, dehydration or imbalance of electrolytes and as a side effect of some medications. Medications that may cause muscle cramps include corticosteroids, diuretics and statin drugs for high cholesterol. Muscle cramps are more common in children and young adolescents and people over the age of 65. If you change your exercise routine significantly, such as starting a new exercise or adding on a lot of time to an exercise, you are more likely to get leg cramps until your body is conditioned to your new exercise routine.
To help stop muscle cramps, make sure that you stay hydrated when you are exercising and throughout the day. Rather than drinking large quantities of plain water, sports drinks with electrolytes may help if you are sweating a lot while exercising. Changing your exercise routine gradually rather than suddenly can help reduce your chance of suffering from lower leg cramps as well.
If you have a lower leg cramp, massaging the cramping muscle or doing stretching exercises can help relieve the cramp. Some people find that applying a heating pad to the cramping muscle helps. Taking a hot shower can also do the trick. Ice packs can also help, although this may not be as comfortable as the heating pad method. Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can be used for muscle cramping pain. However, if you find that you are taking these medications often or in large doses, talk to your doctor about managing your pain. If you find that you are having a lot of muscle cramps at night that disrupt your sleep, it may also be worth it to talk to your doctor about medications that can help relax your muscles and prevent muscle spasms at night.