How to Deal with Calf Cramps
If you’ve ever had calf cramps, you know how truly awful they are.
Your muscles seize up and a sharp pain sets in. Maybe it shocks you awake in the middle of the night or threatens to derail your workout. If you’re like most people, you probably just suffer through them.
Until now. Learn what’s causing the pain and how to prevent and treat calf cramps.
What Causes Leg Cramps?
Anyone can get calf cramps. That’s because there’s a long list of factors that can contribute to them, says Blair B. Kitch, a certified exercise physiologist and owner of Educe Institute in Chicago.
Causes of calf cramps include:
- low electrolyte levels (due to poor diet, diuretics, intense exercise, or heavy sweating)
- skipping your warm-ups
- muscle fatigue
- holding isometric contractions for an extended period of time
Calf muscle cramps are usually nothing to worry about and clear up with minimal intervention. If symptoms persist or you can’t pinpoint their cause, reach out to your primary care physician.
Pregnancy, advancing age, and diabetes, as well as nerve, liver, and thyroid disorders can increase the frequency of calf cramps, Kitch says. Rarely, they may also be the sign of a deep vein thrombosis.
What Causes Nocturnal Leg Cramps?
Up to 60% of adults have experienced a calf cramp during sleep, according to research published in the journal American Family Physician. Their exact cause is not known, but it’s possible that the same issues that cause daytime calf cramps can contribute to calf cramps at night. Muscle fatigue is perhaps the most likely factor.
Leg Cramps vs. Restless Leg Syndrome
Both conditions occur at night, typically when you’re in bed. However, leg cramps and restless leg syndrome are not the same.
“RLS should not be painful and is generally experienced as a discomfort or sensation that one or both legs need to move,” Kitch says.
As you already know, calf cramps are straight-up painful. They aren’t relieved by movement, but stretching and massage often help.
That brings us to our next point.
How Can You Treat and Prevent Cramping?
Strategies to treat sore calves include heat therapy, stretching, and massage. You don’t have to shell out for a professional massage though. Using calf massagers and foam rollers can help reduce symptoms.
However, the best way to prevent calf cramps depends on what’s happening when you experience them.
For instance, if you suspect that nutrition may play a role, drinking more fluids as well as getting more potassium, calcium, or magnesium through whole foods are good options, Kitch says. (Talk to your doctor before starting any supplements. And be sure to discuss any current and suspected health issues that could be contributing to calf cramps.)
If you regularly get calf cramps during sleep, doing some light exercise and stretching before bed may help.
Lastly, frequent shoe-wearers — that’s most of us — can often benefit from strengthening our feet.
“Much of our biomechanics start at the feet,” Kitch explains. Barefoot exercise as well as dedicated foot-strengthening exercises can help. Ditching high heels should go without saying.