Nocturnal calf or leg cramps, are an annoying problem that decreases sleep quality and increases stress and quite frankly are painful! They occur in a high percentage of the population, with it being more common among women in the older age groups.
In 2012, the medical journal American Family Physician published a report that nocturnal leg cramps (usually occurring in the medial gastrocnemius muscle) may be happening more often, with up to 60 percent of adults reporting a history of this problem, although leg cramps affect both young and old.
In most cases, leg cramps are occasional and harmless. Leg cramps are involuntary muscle contractions that can appear at any time. Muscle fatigue and nerve dysfunction appear to be more central to most cases, as well, although the exact cause of night leg cramps isn’t known. Some experts believe they may be due to abnormal processing of electrolytes — essential elements and chemical substances your body needs for basic functions — by muscles. Repeated viral illnesses are also known to cause irritation in this muscle. Certain habitual work habits, such as sitting too long without movement, especially with the foot held in plantar flexion, can cause a high incidence of this problem as well.
Walking in high heels or working in hard soled boots will also put greater stress on the gastrocnemius muscle, in addition to having poor posture while working with locked knees while standing and a forward lean, or standing with a foot up on a chair. Driving long distances with the foot plantar flexed against an accelerator or clutch pedal may also aggravate the muscle. Exercise that involves jogging uphill, climbing rocks, or riding a bicycle with a low seat may strain the muscle, in addition to walking or running on the beach or a sloped surface. Dehydration can be a big culprit. Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, could also be a cause of nocturnal muscle cramps. And pregnancy! Leg cramps are common in pregnant women, particularly during the second and third trimesters.
A number of medications are also now found to be strongly associated with nocturnal leg cramps, such as naproxen, a NSAID pain reliever (Aleve, Midol, Naprosyn) and conjugated estrogens (estradiol sulfates, estrone, equilin) commonly used to treat postmenopausal symptoms and osteoporosis, diuretics, statins, lithium, and prednisone, among other medications. (Don’t change any of your prescription drugs or stop taking them without your doctor’s knowledge and approval.)
So those are some of causes of nocturnal leg cramps, and there sure seems to be a lot of them — but acupuncture can help!
Leg cramps are muscle and tendon problems which have both external and internal origins. Liver stores blood and rules tendons, Spleen is in charge of limbs and muscles and Kidney rules bones. When these organs are weakened, proper nourishment isn’t achieved, and there will be abnormal movement in the limbs. In the meantime, when external pathogens like coldness and dampness or sports injuries further disturb the blood and qi (life force), muscle cramps will occur. The body’s blood tends to flow back to the liver for storage at night, and as a result there is less blood that flows to the muscles and tendons, and that sets the stage for night time leg cramps.
Acupuncture treatment for muscle cramps will typically involve restoring the liver energy flow and treating any problems with the way that it is functioning. Each case will be treated according to the condition of the individual, and we will identify the symptoms and body signs of each patient to diagnose the body imbalances, working holistically with the whole person. Acupuncture can effectively suppress overactive muscles, and play a role in promoting circulation, loosen the tendons, alleviate the cramps and ease pain. Repair of tissue injury can be accelerated, pain relieved, overall health and function of the liver, kidney and hormonal system can be enhanced, and the activities of the blood and qi are freed.
When we address the underlying health conditions or imbalances that may be contributing to the occurrence of muscle cramps, we can help to restore health with the goal of preventing the cramping from occurring again in the future. And that can mean no more night time leg cramps! Happy Legs!
For more information, visit us at www.ctacupuncture.com
Here’s some helpful tips to reduce night time leg cramps:
- Before bedtime, rest on your couch or chair with your leg elevated, and rotate the foot slowly in circles for a few minutes, and then rotate and flex the knee. This muscular movement will bring healthier oxygenated blood to the muscle.
- Elevate the affected leg with a pillow while you sleep if this is comfortable with your normal sleep position.
- Sleeping on your side, with the affected leg placed on a cushion that is in front of the lower leg, is the preferred position for preventing lower leg calf cramps.
- Stay hydrated
- Doing light exercise — Riding a stationary bike for a few minutes before bedtime may help prevent cramps while you’re sleeping.
- Choosing the right shoes — Wearing shoes that have proper support may help prevent leg cramps (soft insoles, perhaps professional orthotics).
- Untuck your covers — Loosen or untuck the bedsheets and other covers at the foot of your bed.
- Keep your electrolytes balanced – calcium, potassium and sodium — they help keep muscles healthy, and work to keep the body well hydrated.
Photo: BW Legs by Marco Mazzone