Leg cramps

Leg cramps are very common and usually harmless. They can happen at any time, but most people have them at night or when resting.

Check if it’s leg cramps

Leg cramps happen when a muscle suddenly shortens and becomes tight (spasms).

They can be very painful and make it hard for you to move. The cramps can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes.

They can affect the:

  • calf muscle, below the knee at the back of the leg
  • muscles in the feet or the thighs (less often)

After the cramp has stopped, the muscle might feel tender for up to 24 hours.

Things you can do yourself

During a cramp

Most cramps go away without you doing anything, but stretching and massaging the muscle can help to ease the pain.

Paracetamol or ibuprofen won't help when cramp is happening as they take too long to work. They can help to ease muscle tenderness afterwards.

Preventing cramps

Regular calf-stretching exercise might not completely prevent cramps, but may help to reduce them.

How to stretch calf muscles
  1. Stand facing a wall, arm’s length away, with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lean forward, pressing your hands against the wall until you feel your calf muscles stretch. Hold for 2 or 3 seconds.
  3. Stand up straight again.
  4. Repeat a few times for 5 minutes, 3 times a day (the last time just before bed).

If the number of cramps reduces you might only need to do the exercise once or twice a day.

See a GP if:

  • leg cramps are disturbing your sleep
  • you also have numbness or swelling in your legs

Ask for an urgent appointment if you have cramps and:

  • they last longer than 10 minutes
  • there’s a chance you might have got a tetanus infection from a wound

Treatment for leg cramps

Your GP will examine you to try to find out the reason for your cramps.

They’ll suggest a treatment depending on the cause. This might be:

  • stretching exercises
  • quinine tablets if your cramps are very bad and exercise hasn't helped

Quinine isn’t suitable for everyone. Your GP will discuss potential risks and side effects with you.

Causes of leg cramps

Cramps can sometimes be caused by:

  • ageing
  • exercise - putting too much strain on muscles
  • pregnancy - usually in the later stage
  • medication for lowering cholesterol (statins) or high blood pressure (diuretics)
  • not drinking enough fluid (dehydration)
  • liver disease - because of too much alcohol

The reason for some cramps is unknown.

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.

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