Leg cramps are a common and usually harmless condition. Cramps happen where the muscles in your leg suddenly become tight and painful. It usually happens in the calf muscles, although it can affect any part of your leg, including your feet and thighs.
Causes of leg cramp
Leg cramps can happen for no obvious reason.
They can also occur as a symptom or complication of a health condition. This is known as secondary leg cramps.
Three out of four cases occur at night during sleep.
Causes of secondary leg cramps can include:
- certain types of medication, such as statins (medicines that help lower cholesterol levels)
- liver disease
Symptoms of leg cramps
Symptoms of a leg cramp include:
- a sudden pain in the muscles of the leg caused by an involuntary contracting (shortening) of the leg muscle
- most occur in the calf muscles and, less commonly, in the feet and thighs
- cramps can last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes - thigh muscle cramps tend to last the longest
- during cramping, the affected muscles will become tight and painful and the feet and toes will be stiff
- after the cramps have passed, you may have pain and tenderness in your legs for several hours
When to see your GP
Speak to your GP if your leg cramps are affecting your quality of life. If, for example, you have frequent leg cramps or they are interfering with your sleep.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine your legs and feet. They may also ask if you have other symptoms, such as numbness or swelling.
This may be a sign that you have secondary leg cramps caused by an underlying condition.
You may need further tests, such as blood tests and urine tests, to rule out other conditions.
When to seek immediate medical advice
There are two situations where leg cramps may be a sign of a more serious underlying health condition.
You should seek immediate medical help if:
- the cramps last longer than 10 minutes and fail to improve, despite exercise
- cramps develop after you come into contact with substances that could be toxic (poisonous) 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 being exposed to elements such as mercury or lead
Treating leg cramps
Most cases of leg cramps can be relieved by exercising the affected muscles. Exercising your legs during the day will often help reduce how often you get cramping.
To stretch your calf muscles:
- stand with the front half of your feet on a step, with your heels hanging off the edge
- slowly lower your heels so that they are below the level of the step
- hold for a few seconds before lifting your heels back up to the starting position
- repeat a number of times
Medication is usually only needed in the most persistent cases, where cramping does not respond to exercise.
If you have secondary leg cramps, treating the underlying cause may help relieve your symptoms.
Leg cramps that occur during pregnancy should pass after the baby is born.
Treating cramps that occur as a result of serious liver disease can be more difficult. Your treatment plan may include using medications such as muscle relaxants.
Preventing leg cramps
If you often get leg cramps, regularly stretching the muscles in your lower legs may help prevent the cramps or reduce their frequency.
You might find it useful to stretch your calves before you go to bed each night (see stretching advice above or try this post-exercise calf stretch).
The following night-time advice may also help:
- if you lie on your back, make sure that your toes point upwards – placing a pillow on its side at the end of your bed, with the soles of your feet propped up against it may help keep your feet in the right position
- if you lie on your front, hang your feet over the end of the bed – this will keep your feet in a relaxed position and help stop the muscles in your calves from contracting and tensing
- keep your sheets and blankets loose
People commonly affected by leg cramps
Two groups of people particularly affected by leg cramps are:
- adults over 60 – it is thought that a third of people over 60 experience leg cramps; about 40 per cent of these have three or more cramps a week
- pregnant women – about a third of pregnant women have leg cramps, usually during the last trimester of pregnancy (week 27 to the birth)
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.