Night Time Leg Cramps: Perform These 3 Stretches Before Bed

Have you ever jumped out of bed with an intense cramp in your leg or foot?  Night time leg cramps occur suddenly and are extremely painful.  Pain can be sharp and last for a few seconds or several minutes.  They can lead to substantial sleep disturbances.  Night time cramps occur in almost 50% of older adults.  Medications are prescribed to treat people with severe leg cramps.  However, the effectiveness of these medications is mixed and many have serious side effects. Thankfully, there is a series of proven home stretching exercises you can perform to alleviate your night time leg cramps.

Causes and Treatment of Leg Cramps

Leg cramps are actually sustained, involuntary muscle contractions of the calf, hamstrings, or foot muscles.  We don’t fully understand what causes these painful leg cramps.  Experts believe abnormal activity of nerves is the most widely accepted cause.  Abnormal firing of nerves can be due to medications (diuretics and steroids to name a few), physical inactivity, and age-related changes in nerves, muscles, and tendons.  People with other health problems such as thyroid disorders, high blood pressure, and neurological diseases are more at risk.

Foot cramp

Medications and supplements are commonly used to decrease activity of the excited nerves in order to reduce leg cramping.  Quinine has been shown to be moderately effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of cramps.  However, its use comes with the potential for serious and sometimes life-threatening side effects, especially in women.  Other medications have been used to treat leg cramps such as magnesium, Vitamin B, calcium, and Vitamin E; however none of these appears to be effective.

Proven Stretches for Leg Cramps

The combination of physical inactivity and age-related changes in the nerves, muscles, and tendons predisposes you to cramping at night.  Regular daily physical activity, such as a walking program, will increase lower leg blood flow to the nerves, muscles, and tendons.  Stretching exercises at night calms your excitable nerves and lengthens your shortened muscles and tendons.  A 2012 study of 80 adults over the age of 55, showed significant improvements in the severity and frequency of night time cramps after performing nightly stretches before bed.  The following 3 videos show stretches which can easily be performed in 10 minutes or less prior to settling in for the night.

Standing Calf Stretch

Stand facing a wall with your elbows straight and both hands on the wall at chest level.  One leg is forward with your knee bent, and the other leg is back with your knee straight. Both feet are in full contact with the floor. Your back heel remains in contact with the floor as you lean towards the wall.  Hold the stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds and as long as 30 seconds.  Perform 2 to 3 stretches on each leg immediately prior to bed each night.

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Face a chair that is placed against a wall.  Place one heel on the chair with your knee fully straight.  Hold on to something for balance.  Bend at the waist so that your trunk tilts forward, keeping your back straight. The foot on the floor should maintain full contact and the other heel remains in contact with the chair.  Hold the stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds and as long as 30 seconds.  Perform 2 to 3 stretches on each leg immediately prior to bed each night.

Seated Hamstring Stretch

This stretch is similar to the standing version.  Not everyone will need to perform both.  To perform the sitting version sit on the side of your bed with one leg extended in front. The other foot maintains in contact with the floor.  Bend at the waist so that your trunk tilts forward, keeping your back straight.  Hold the stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds and as long as 30 seconds.  Perform 2 to 3 stretches on each leg immediately prior to bed each night.

Start Stretching Tonight

Night time leg cramps can be miserable.  They can severely disturb your sleep leaving you with little energy to do things during the day.  Regular night time stretching can alleviate much of the distress.  In order to achieve the best results, stretching must be done each night.  Infrequent or random stretching will do little good.  Give these 3 stretches a shot for at least 6 weeks and see how things are going.  If you want more help give us a call.  Our physical therapists can help you find the right stretches for you and supplement these with massage and other manual therapy treatments.   You don’t have to keep suffering with night time leg cramps.


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