Leg Cramps – Often harmless, always painful

A woman is holding her aching calves.

© ANN PATCHANAN | shutterstock.com

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Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

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A stabbing pain shoots through your leg and wakes you from your sleep – leg cramps strike again!

A few simple exercises are enough to get your cramp attacks under control permanently. Learn about the causes of leg cramps and effective ways to help. In most cases, you can make sure that your leg cramps are less frequent and less severe.

Roland Liebscher-Bracht

Roland Liebscher-Bracht

Germany's most trusted pain specialist and author of several bestselling self-help books on the treatment of pain conditions.

 
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Roland Liebscher-Bracht is Germany's most trusted pain specialist and author of several bestselling books on pain treatment. Together with his wife, Dr. med. Petra Bracht, he has developed a revolutionary method to treat pain conditions. With the help of the so-called "osteopressure", where you press specific points on your body, and special stretching exercises, pain can be stopped entirely without medication or surgical intervention. This pain treatment allows you to alleviate pain by yourself. Find out how exactly this works in this article or our numerous YouTube videos.

Roland Liebscher-Bracht

Germany's best-known pain specialist and author of several bestselling books on self-help against pain.

 
Read more

Roland Liebscher-Bracht is Germany's best-known pain specialist and author of several bestselling books on pain treatment. Together with his wife, the physician Dr. Petra Bracht, he has developed a revolutionary new form of pain treatment: With the so-called "Osteopressur", in which certain points on your body are pressed, and special stretching exercises, pain can be stopped completely without medication or surgical intervention. It is particularly important that this pain treatment gives you the opportunity to help yourself against your pain in a self-determined way. You can find out exactly how this works in this article and in the numerous YouTube videos.

1. Leg Cramps: Overview and Symptoms


Leg cramps (more specifically: calf cramps) are abrupt, involuntary, painful contractions of part or all of the calf muscles that last for seconds to minutes and then subside spontaneously. People suffering from these conditions can see and feel the shortening of the affected muscle.1)

The frequency of cramps increases significantly during pregnancy and in old age. A residual pain can often be felt even hours later, making it difficult to fall asleep again, leaving you tired the next day. Quality of life can start to suffer, so take action to stop leg cramps. Find out how in the chapter on treatment.

📌 When to see a doctor?

Most leg cramps have muscular causes. However, if you are worried about medical conditions, muscle diseases, varicose veins, circulatory problems, or nerve damage, you should ask your doctor for a focused health check.

If your leg cramps/calf cramps occur:

  • several times a week,
  • last for several minutes,
  • do not subside alone or by stretching,
  • if they are accompanied by water retention or swelling in the legs, we recommend seeing a medical professional.

This also applies to deep, diffuse sensations that cannot be precisely assigned to a specific muscle and are accompanied by sensory disturbances (feeling of ants on the skin, tingling, burning, numbness). Increasing weakness of the leg muscle and muscular atrophy are also conditions that indicate underlying disease and always require a specialist medical examination of the blood, blood vessels, muscles, and nervous system to ensure optimal health.

Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

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2. Causes of Leg Cramps


The triggers of night cramps are many and varied, and it is hard to find specific medical causes. In our experience, however, there is a reason that people suffer from this type of cramping – shortened and unyielding leg muscles.

2.1 Muscular Shortening

We believe that muscular shortening and tangled fasciae (the connective tissue around the muscle) are responsible for many common pain conditions, including leg cramps.

Lack of exercise and sitting a lot do calves no favors. Calves need to move and be stretched to maintain its vitality and avoid overstress. Long periods sitting risk forcing your upper and lower leg to permanently form a 90-degree angle. The fascia and muscle fibers adapt to this one-sided (non-)movement pattern, becoming brittle and unyielding, and unnaturally high tension is created to the detriment of your health.

📌 How does your sleeping position affect leg cramping?

Cramps in your sleep can be prevented. If you sleep on your side and bend your legs, you stay in a shortened position as you do when sitting, and may intensify the symptoms. However, if you sleep on your back with your legs stretched out, you can train your calves to lengthen and reduce the tendency to cramp.

2.2 Stress

Monotonous movement plus daily worries and hardships can present your calves with a biomechanical problem.

If you are under high pressure in your job, stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline put the muscles permanently into fight mode.

If mental tension persists, nerve impulses can no longer be targeted to the muscle. Cells become permanently agitated, and the muscle cannot relax.

📌 Muscle stress due to unsuitable shoes?

Tight shoes force your foot into the wrong position for hours; the reaction can extend from the heel bones to the calves. Muscle-related changes in your feet can put your calves under stress, disrupt blood flow, and cause cramps.

2.3 Electrolyte Deficiency, Medication, Alcohol Consumption, and Pregnancy

Muscular overstrain during sports can also trigger cramping sensations. Athletes’ bodies use a lot of micronutrients so if there is a deficiency, stores of vital substances are emptied and calves are overstrained.

 

A man is sweating a lot after exercising.

© Kues | shutterstock.com

The loss of fluid and minerals is just as severe as muscular strain. Through intensive training or hard physical work, the body loses up to one liter of fluid per hour. It also sweats out electrolytes – minerals dissolved in body fluid, such as magnesium, potassium, or calcium. This can lead to muscle cramps.

We often drink too little or, with alcohol, we drink the wrong thing. Regular consumption of alcohol increases the risk of magnesium deficiency and increases the risk of a cramping sensation. Some alcoholic drinks have a diuretic effect, which upsets the electrolyte balance.2) 

Cramping might also be caused by a medical prescription. A cramp-inducing effect is mainly attributed to three groups of drugs3):

  • Bronchodilators, used in asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
  • Diuretics, which are used to drain fluid from the body in cases of heart failure or high blood pressure,
  • Substances to lower cholesterol (statins).4)

During pregnancy, the body has an increased need for minerals. In expectant mothers, magnesium deficiency and disturbances in the electrolyte balance are considered the most frequent causes of cramping. Prevention is possible with our treatments.

2.4 Diseases That Cause Leg Cramps

Underlying diseases can trigger cramping sensations. Diseases affecting the metabolism and the hormone or electrolyte balance can cause muscle cramps, including diabetes mellitus, kidney and liver diseases, iron deficiency, and under-functioning thyroid and parathyroid glands.5)

Nerve damage can also cause cramping of the calves. Consult a medical professional if you experience symptoms such as swelling or numbness or are worried that you have an undiagnosed disease.

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Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

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Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

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3. Treatment of Leg Cramps


You can ensure that your calves cramp less often and less severely. Here are some anti-spasm exercises to use for acute pain and effective prevention. The goal is healing and improved health instead of just suppression of pain.

3.1 Relaxing Calf Muscles — The Liebscher & Bracht Approach to Health

Muscle-Fasciae Stretches

The majority of cramping sensations originate in a stressed and shortened muscle. Relaxing the muscles and fasciae below the knees and stretching the shins and calves is the aim of our stretching exercises.

Stretching calves is the most important way to treat this condition.

Foam Rolling Massage

Be it in the form of muscular shortening, electrolyte deficiency, or medication – your body stores the stress of everyday life. Toxins settle in the tissue and small adhesions form in the fascias. This becomes brittle, makes the musculofascial network in your leg unyielding, and increases abnormal tensions.

Break this negative spiral with our foam rolling massage. Applying pressure in a targeted manner de-acidifies the tissue, promotes blood circulation, and stimulates the repair of tangled fascial strands in a highly effective way.

A woman is foam rolling her calves.

Osteopressure

With our experts, you can practice muscle-fasciae stretches and benefit from our acute treatment – osteopressure. Our pain specialist “pushes away” the tension and can modify the mechanisms of your brain, providing rapid relief. Take deep breaths, sleep through the night without cramps, and regain motivation for exercises. Read how our osteopressure works here.

Osteopressure is a specially developed massage that lets you activate the pain-free points of your calves at home. Roland Liebscher-Bracht usually explains how to best proceed and which points to press to counteract your increased muscle tension in our videos.

3.2 Can Magnesium Help You?

Magnesium is often considered the miracle cure for the amelioration and prevention of cramps. Magnesium is essential for good metabolism. Since we cannot produce it ourselves, magnesium has to be sufficiently integrated into our diet to avoid deficiency. Nuts, pulses and wholemeal products, bananas and raspberries, spinach, kohlrabi, linseed, and sunflower seeds are sources of magnesium.

A selection of food containing magnesium: seeds, nuts, avocado, and spinach.

© bitt24 | shutterstock.com

However, magnesium alone cannot effectively prevent cramps, it has only been proven to be effective during pregnancy.6)

Monitor your magnesium and electrolyte balance. You might also want to try magnesium citrate as a dietary supplement – ideally supplemented with potassium.

Magnesium alone is not enough to control cramps, so make our exercises part of your routine, eat a healthy diet, and limit your alcohol consumption.

3.3 Quinine: A Secret Weapon?

Quinine is the only substance proven to be effective in clinical studies for the amelioration of nocturnal cramps.7)

📌 What Is Quinine and How Does It Work?

Quinine, an extract of the bark of the Cinchona tree, was first used medically in the treatment of malaria. It has antipyretic and analgesic functions, and as quinine sulfate also helps to relieve cramps.

Some pieces of cinchona tree bark.

© Heike Rau | shutterstock.com

Some caution is required. Athletes’ cramps often result from an outflow of potassium from the muscle cell – which quinine sulfate can slow down. However, there are side effects and quinine should not be taken during pregnancy or if you suffer from many conditions including high blood pressure and heart disease.8)

Try our exercises before considering taking quinine for cramps. Or if you’re already taking it, integrate our exercises into your routine as a natural self-help tool.

Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

Join Over 12,000 Subscribers Who Are Managing Pain Themselves.

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Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter and get interactive exercise videos and articles about pain management and health delivered to your inbox.

All gain. No pain.

Join Over 7000 Subscribers Who Are Managing Pain Themselves.

Roland Liebscher-Bracht is performing a pain-free exercise.

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter and get interactive exercise videos and articles about pain management and health delivered to your inbox.

All gain. No pain.

Sources & Studies [+]