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Why do I get Leg Cramps at Night?

By Lily Ruha
Updated May 17, 2024
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Leg cramps at night, also known as charley horses or nocturnal leg cramps, are often harmless. They are usually caused by dehydration, muscle fatigue, and/or poor circulation resulting from lack of movement. The incidence of leg cramps at night increases with age and is more common in pregnant women. In some cases, nocturnal leg cramps are associated with diseases such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, Parkinson’s disease, and thyroid imbalance. Certain medications and chemical imbalances can also cause nocturnal leg cramps.

In most people, a charley horse is not a cause for concern. Activities that cause muscular fatigue and dehydration will increase the likelihood of experiencing leg cramps at night. Inadequate water intake or excessive consumption of liquids such as caffeine and alcohol often lead to dehydration. Overexertion of muscles in an athletic sport or household activity can also increase the likelihood of nocturnal leg cramps. The simple act of resting in one position for too long can lead to leg cramps at night.

Nocturnal leg cramps are sometimes experienced by those with specific diseases. Diabetics often experience nerve damage that can lead to leg cramps. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease often experience sudden or severe nocturnal leg cramps. A thyroid imbalance and hypoglycemia are other conditions sometimes leading to leg cramps.

Leg cramps at night can also be caused by chemical imbalances. Certain medications can cause this problem, such as those used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Morphine and lithium can also cause leg cramps. Other chemical imbalances in the body may be the result of a dietary deficiency in potassium, magnesium or calcium.

Often, leg cramps are not caused by a serious illness or chemical imbalance. In these instances, the problem can possibly be prevented through increasing water intake and stretching the muscles before bedtime. When the leg cramps, massaging the affected area and moving the leg around will help to relieve the pain. Eating a potassium-rich diet consisting of foods such as bananas, potatoes, and oranges will also help to control the problem.

If nocturnal leg cramps are persistent, severe, and accompanied by muscle weakness, a visit to the doctor may be necessary. A doctor will usually order blood tests to check for chemical and hormonal imbalances. He also will likely check to ensure that no serious circulation problems exist. Treatments usually involve addressing the underlying cause of the problem, particularly if the cramps are caused by a specific disease or imbalance.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Jul 08, 2011

I read on a forum that leg cramps are sometimes a symptom of restless leg syndrome. Has anyone heard of this as well?

I have a lot of joint pain in general. I do move my feet and legs a lot at night because of the pain. I know I don't have rheumatism, so that's definitely ruled out.

I might have restless leg syndrome although I've never looked into it. If it's the case that cramps are a result of the syndrome, I should look for treatments for that instead of the cramps.

I've basically followed all recommendations for night cramps but haven't gotten any good results with it.

By candyquilt — On Jul 08, 2011

My sister is also experiencing severe leg cramps at night, and she is seven months pregnant right now. We went to her doctor together to ask about it. Apparently it's very common during pregnancy. The baby is adding a lot of weight and that strains the muscles. The doctor said that it might be due to hormonal shifts and lack of magnesium and calcium as well.

He asked her to take some additional supplements and do some foot exercises before going to bed. Hopefully it will get better.

By fify — On Jul 07, 2011

I used to get leg cramps at night in bed all the time growing up. It was not very pleasant at all, I remember waking up from the pain in my calves and having to get up and wait until it got better. I never understood why they happened but it went away on its own after I stopped growing. Looking back at it now, I think it might have had something to do with growing taller.

It used to happen less frequently when I took vitamin supplements as well. So maybe I also had a vitamin deficiency.

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