Calf cramps: causes and treatment of cramps in the calves

Calf cramps indicates muscle cramps in the calves. Normally calf cramps occur on one side. Calf cramps is a form of leg cramp. This involves sudden pain in the calf muscles caused by an involuntary contraction of the muscles. Most leg cramps occur in the calf muscles. Calf cramps can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes. During an episode of calf cramps, the affected muscles become tight and sore and the feet and toes stiff. After the cramps are over, you can experience pain and sensitivity in the calves for a few hours. Sometimes this stiffness and pain itself lasts longer than one day.
  • What are calf cramps?
  • Symptoms
  • Causes and triggering factors
  • Provoking factors
  • Lifestyle
  • Pregnancy
  • Medical causes
  • Use of medication
  • Consult your doctor
  • Alarm symptoms
  • Treatment of cramps in the calves
  • Prognosis

What are calf cramps?

Calf cramps are painful muscle contractions in the calves and they often occur at night. The muscle cramps can be unbearable. It often scares you awake. The cramps last from a few seconds to minutes. In some cases, these cramps can be prevented.

Symptoms

Your muscles will cramp if they involuntarily contract. This usually feels like a sore and hard knot in your calf. The symptoms of calf cramps are:
  • severe pain
  • the muscle contracts fully or partially
  • the cramp is often visible as a swelling
  • the calf cramp can be felt as a hardening of the muscle
  • it often occurs at night
  • there is often post-pain
Medication is a provoking factor for calf cramps / Source: Joe Besure / Shutterstock.com

Causes and triggering factors

Provoking factors

There are several factors that can cause leg cramps. But it is also important to note that there is often no explanation for calf leg cramps at all. The cause of calf cramps is not exactly known in 2019. It is most likely related to nerves that are extra sensitive and active, leading to rapid muscle contractions. The triggering factors are:
  • stretch your feet in the side position
  • set your feet against the foot of the bed when lying down
  • vomiting / diarrhea
  • prior physical exertion
  • pregnancy
  • medication use

Lifestyle

There are certain activities that make you more susceptible to calf cramps, such as:
  • recreational running
  • strength training of the legs
  • sports where you have to run a lot, such as football or basketball

It is possible that muscle fatigue is the most important trigger of calf cramps. The risks are even greater if these muscles are tired in hot weather or if you do not drink enough and have dried out. You can prevent calf cramps as a result of physical exertion by drinking a lot of water and taking it easy. Avoid exercising when you are tired.
Calf cramps during pregnancy / Source: Zerocool, Pixabay

Pregnancy

Pregnancy can also increase the risk of leg cramps. In pregnancy, a woman often suffers from calf cramps from the second trimester onwards, especially at night.

Medical causes

Certain medical conditions can cause you to suffer from calf cramps more often:
  • Addison's disease (an adrenal cortex disease)
  • alcoholism
  • kidney failure
  • thyroid problems
  • Parkinson's disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • sarcoidosis (a condition where inflammation occurs in different parts of your body such as your skin, organs and joints)
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • vascular diseases

Use of medication

Certain medicines increase the risk of calf cramps, such as:
  • birth control pills
  • diuretics or water pills (with high blood pressure and heart failure)
  • naproxing
  • albuterol, an asthma medicine
  • statins (drugs that lower cholesterol)
Consult a doctor in case of cramps in the calf / Source: Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com

Consult your doctor

If you occasionally suffer from calf cramps, then a man is not immediately overboard and a medical diagnosis is not required. A visit to your doctor is only necessary if you often suffer from calf cramps or if they are so painful that they disturb your sleep and you cannot function normally the next day due to lack of sleep. You should also go to your doctor if the muscles in your legs become thinner or weaker.

Alarm symptoms

There are two situations where calf cramps can be a sign of a more serious underlying health condition:
  • The cramps last longer than 10 minutes and do not improve.
  • Cramps develop after you come into contact with substances that can be toxic or infectious, for example if you have a cut that is contaminated with soil, which can sometimes cause a bacterial infection, such as tetanus, or after you have been exposed to elements such as mercury or lead.

Treatment of cramps in the calves

If you have a cramp, massage your calf and stretch it carefully. Bend your foot to try to stretch the muscle, or walk around on your heels if the pain is not unbearable. A warm bath can also be applied. Other measures are:
  • adequate fluid intake
  • sleeping with the foot in dorsiflexion (backward bending of the feet) and raising the legs high
  • stretching exercises of the calf before going to sleep
  • quinine medication (300 mg hydrokinin) for the night for up to 2 to 4 weeks (not for pregnant women)
  • pregnant women can use magnesium, calcium and sodium

Prognosis

In general, the effects of a (nocturnal) calf cramp will disappear in a few minutes. But if you suffer from persistent cramps, it is useful to consult your doctor. If your cramps are a symptom of a condition, addressing the underlying problem can provide relief. It can also help to use other medicines; consult this with the doctor. Lifestyle measures can also help prevent calf cramps.

Video: Remedies for the excruciating pain of charley horse leg cramps (February 2020).

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