Nocturnal Leg Cramps: Can They Be Prevented?
For most people, nocturnal leg cramps are an occasional painful nuisance.
However, there are those unfortunate people who have chronic night leg cramps.
If you frequently have muscle cramps in your legs or feet, and are looking for proven ways to prevent them, there’s not much help in the scientific literature.
Let’s take a look at what the research shows.Quinine has often been prescribed by doctors for nighttime leg cramps. But there are serious dangers with using quinine that you need to know about.
On December 11, 2006, and then updated in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States issued a press release about the serious hazards associated with quinine.
Here’s what the FDA wrote:
“Since 1969, FDA has received 665 reports of adverse events with serious outcomes associated with quinine use, including 93 deaths. Quinine drugs are associated with serious side effects, such as cardiac arrhythmias, thrombocytopenia (a decrease in blood platelets that can cause hemorrhage or clotting problems), and severe hypersensitivity reactions. There is also the potential for serious interactions between quinine drugs and other drugs, and there are conditions under which quinine should not be used.
“As part of its action, FDA is also cautioning consumers about off-label use of quinine to treat leg cramps. Quinine is approved for treatment of malaria, but is also commonly prescribed to treat leg cramps and similar conditions. Because malaria is life-threatening, the risks associated with quinine use are justified for that condition. But because of the drug’s risks, FDA believes it should not be used to prevent or treat leg cramps.”
On top of that, the health hazards of taking quinine include: tinnitus (buzzing in the ears), fever, blurry vision, pruritus (severe itching of the skin), digestive ailments, headaches, and dizziness.
For pregnant women, nocturnal leg cramps are common. Taking quinine is risky however. Quinine is a teratogen, meaning it can interfere with the development of the fetus and cause birth defects.First, the amounts of quinine in tonic water are trivial and probably harmless. There also is not enough quinine in tonic water to have a significant positive effect on nocturnal leg cramps.
Secondly, an excellent research paper in the March 2005 British Journal of General Practice had this to say:
“Quinine is commonly used as a treatment for night cramps but there are doubts about its effectiveness and it has potential side effects. Advising those on long-term repeat prescriptions to try stopping quinine temporarily will result in no major problems for patients, and allow a significant number to stop medication.”
If you’ve visited online forums for people with nocturnal leg cramps, you’ll notice many people recommending to others on the forum that they should try quinine. I hope I’ve given you good reasons why that is bad advice.
Now let’s look at other treatments that have been suggested or researched for preventing nocturnal leg cramps and see how effective they are.Though vitamin E is an important nutrient, there is no evidence in the medical literature to show that vitamin E supplements provide any relief for nocturnal leg cramps. Magnesium is an awesome nutrient and useful for sleep, but what about night leg cramps?
You often see it recommended for cramps. Yet the medical literature shows no significant difference between taking magnesium or taking a placebo (fake pill) in terms of preventing the severity, frequency, or duration of night cramps.
A June 2011 research paper in The Journals of Gerontology concluded this: “Although oral magnesium is widely marketed to older adults for the prophylaxis [prevention] of leg cramps, our data suggest that magnesium therapy is not indicated for the treatment of rest cramps in a geriatric population.” (Nocturnal leg cramps are sometimes referred to as rest cramps in the medical literature.)
Still, most people are not getting enough magnesium in their diets. And because it’s such a vital nutrient, supplements may be beneficial to take for your overall health.
As for pregnant women, there is some evidence that magnesium may be helpful for nighttime leg cramps. Calcium may also help, although the studies show mixed results, from some improvement to no improvement. Pregnant women should consult with their doctors before taking either of these substances.
People with kidney disease should also consult their doctors before taking magnesium supplements. In fact, everyone needs to keep their doctor informed of whatever supplements and herbs they’re taking.There aren’t any good studies showing whether these types of socks provide leg cramp relief or prevent leg cramps. They may work for you or they may not. You never know until you try them. I could not find anything in the medical literature about using pain killing drugs for prevention of nocturnal leg cramps. Besides, by the time you take a pain pill for the cramping, the leg pain will most likely have gone away. You would think that daily stretching of the calf muscles would be a good idea to prevent leg cramps.
But the evidence of its effectiveness just isn’t there. In the same paper I mentioned above from the British Journal of General Practice, researchers stated bluntly that after 12 weeks of their study, “calf-stretching exercises are not effective in reducing the frequency or severity of nocturnal leg cramps.”I haven’t brought you a lot of good news about preventing leg cramps. Sorry, don’t shoot the messenger! Facts are facts and there just isn’t a lot of scientific information out there on how to prevent leg cramps.
So what can you do about night leg cramps?
Start with the article below on leg pain at night. I’ve given you 16 options to try, and the first 5 options are in that article.
Also, if nocturnal leg cramps are causing you insomnia, here’s an excellent natural supplement for sleep (link opens in a new window). Adults can take it and so can children 12 years and up. They also have a scientifically researched natural supplement for stress, anxiety, or depression (link opens in a new window), if that’s what’s keeping you up at night.
1) FDA Orders Unapproved Quinine Drugs from the Market and Cautions Consumers About “Off-Label” Use of Quinine to Treat Leg Cramps. FDA news release for immediate release. P06-195. December 11, 2006. Updated June 18, 2009.
2) Leg Cramps. Clinical Evidence 2009;03:1113.
3) Managing nocturnal leg cramps—calf-stretching exercises and cessation of quinine treatment: a factorial randomised controlled trial. British Journal of General Practice, March 2005.
4) The effect of magnesium infusion on rest cramps: randomized controlled trial. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2011 Jun;66(6):661-6. Epub 2011 Feb 2.Leg pain at Night: 16 Lower Leg Cramps Treatment Options