ProvidenceJournal.com – Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night because your calf is in a painful cramp? When it happens to me, I have to swing my leg to the floor to stretch the cramp out. After one cramp, I’m usually doomed to several more the same night, in the same muscle or down in my foot.
My episodes are infrequent, but they are painful. And my experience is hardly unique.
More than half of the people responding to a nationwide survey reported experiencing nighttime leg cramps. Nearly 30 percent of adults get them at least five times per month; 6 percent get them at least 15 times per month, according to an analysis of the survey results published in the journal PLOS One in June.
Study author John Winkelman, a sleep medicine specialist at Harvard University, was not surprised by the prevalence. “Not at all,” he said. “Because I see patients, I see how common they are.”
A European group of researchers queried 516 French patients age 60 or older and found similar numbers: Forty-six percent reported having experienced cramps, 31 percent said cramps had awakened them and 15 percent said it happened more than three times per month.
Doctors sure hear about it from patients, but they don’t have much solid advice to give. No one really knows what causes nighttime leg cramps. “As a sleep doctor, I tell patients, We don’t understand the causes, and we don’t have good, reliable treatments,” Winkelman says. (Winkelman is an adviser to a biotech company developing an anti-cramping treatment.)
That’s not to say there’s not plenty of advice out there in Googleland. Stretching regimens, hydrating and taking vitamins are some of the things that you’ll see recommended. However, the evidence is not strong for any of them.
Stretching the calves and hamstrings right before bed did yield a benefit, a small randomized study from the Netherlands found. Eighty people older than 55 had an average of three cramps per night at the start of the study. One group practiced the stretching exercises for six weeks: Its average cramp frequency decreased to one per night. The group whose members didn’t stretch reported an average of two cramps per night at the study’s end. This could have been a placebo effect from being under observation by researchers.
“Lower leg and foot cramps are more common than you think, especially at night. If you having trouble sleeping because of this, try stretching before going to bed; and if you are not finding any relief, your Physical Therapist will be able to help.”