Kristen Sparrow • August 13, 2013
I get asked about this fairly frequently. One common remedy that a patient told me about was to drink one Gatorade a day. (I’m not sure what size.)
Nighttime leg cramps are a common problem: As many as 6 in 10 adults report experiencing them at some time.
But researchers are not sure what causes them. Sometimes they can be a sign of an underlying medical problem, like liver disease, arthritis or peripheral vascular disease, said Dr. Richard E. Allen, who published a report on the phenomenon in the journal American Family Physician last year. Nocturnal leg cramps can also be confused with restless legs syndrome or, in rare cases, side effects of drugs like estrogen and naproxen.
For that reason, when the problem is persistent, he recommends seeing a doctor to help make a diagnosis.
“Leg cramps are kind of a diagnosis of exclusion,” said Dr. Allen, who is medical director of the Utah Healthcare Institute. “We really should rule out these other more dangerous things before we call it benign leg cramps.”
One remedy that has been shown to work is the antimalarial drug quinine, but it has such severe side effects that the Food and Drug Administration warns against using it for leg cramps. In the United States tonic water historically contained large amounts of quinine but now typically contains very little.
Magnesium supplements are another popular remedy. But a 2012 study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that they were “unlikely” to be of much help.
Dr. Allen said that taking a little acetaminophen (Tylenol) before bed can help reduce pain associated with the cramps. A small dose of muscle relaxant or vitamin B12 might also be helpful, he said. But the best dose of prevention might be regular aerobic activity, in particular a few minutes of exercise before bed, like five minutes on a stationary bicycle.
“The two things that seem to be most closely connected to leg cramps are the nerves firing when they’re not supposed to and poor circulation,” he said. “Exercise improves circulation, and it seems to settle down the nerves.”