Leg cramps: causes and what to do?

During a cramp, your muscles contract forcefully involuntarily and this hurts. Cramps can occur anywhere and can have various causes, such as reduced blood supply, a shortage of salts and fluid, cold or heat. A common type of cramp is leg cramps. This usually concerns the calf muscles. It can be caused by intensive exercise, but also by incorrect nutrition. What does leg cramp mean, what can be the cause and how can you best treat it?


Cramp is the sudden and involuntary contraction of a muscle or muscle group. Cramps can also occur outside voluntary muscles, such as organ muscles. For example, it can also arise in the stomach or intestines. It usually involves cramps in a muscle. This can be felt as a strong and large cramping movement in which the muscle contracts, which is usually accompanied by pain. At that moment the muscle does not function. Cramps can occur in anyone and can occur as a result of heavy physical exertion, but it can also occur during sleep.

Leg cramp

Getting cramps in a leg is common. Almost everyone can relate to it and knows how annoying it is. This usually involves the calf muscles and can be quite painful. In most cases, leg cramps occur during your sleep. The pain and muscle spasms wake you up and you subsequently lose control of your leg muscles for a while. There are two types of muscle cramps you can get:

  1. Idiopathic leg cramps
  2. Secondary leg cramps

Types of leg cramps

Idiopathic leg cramps are spasms or cramps that you get for no apparent reason. This type of cramping is most common at night. It is seen when the muscle is stimulated in a shortened position. When sleeping, your leg is usually slightly raised, causing the calf muscle to shorten. Secondary leg cramps are mainly seen during physical exertion or a condition.


There are several causes for cramps. If you exercise just after eating, the chance of getting cramps is greater because your blood mainly goes to your stomach and intestines to digest the food. Less blood remains in the legs and when you exercise, your legs need more blood. The muscles can then respond by cramping. If you lose a lot of fluid and salts due to excessive sweating, you may also experience cramps. There is often also too much strain on your muscles. Other mineral deficiencies that can lead to cramps are: magnesium or calcium. Furthermore, a shortage of sugar or fatigue can cause you to get cramps.

Nighttime cramps

A nocturnal calf cramp in particular can sometimes occur. It does not always have to do with exercise or a nutritional deficiency. It can also be related to mental exertion. If you go to bed with a head full of thoughts, you may not sleep relaxed. Your thoughts run wild at night and that can cause your muscles to tense. Worrying can also cause intense dreams, which increases the chance of cramps. It is better to get into bed relaxed.

Risk groups

Intensive exercisers are more at risk of developing leg cramps because they are more likely to overstrain their muscles. Research has shown that 40 percent of adults over the age of 60 suffer from leg cramps on average three times a week. Pregnant women are also more at risk of developing leg cramps, especially during the last three months of pregnancy. Leg cramps can occur in anyone, at any age, even in children. No difference is seen between men and women.

Treating cramps

What many people do during the cramp is to stretch the leg muscle in question. By stretching you prevent the muscle from contracting. In case of calf cramps, you can gently pull your toes up. When the muscle has stopped contracting, it is nice to massage the muscle a bit. This helps to relax the muscle and helps against muscle pain. If you have sweated excessively and are deficient in certain substances, it is best to replenish this. For example, athletes can drink a cup of broth or a sports drink against sugar deficiencies.

Prevent leg cramps

Athletes can ensure in advance that the salt and sugar content is at the correct level. Do not eat too much, because this in turn draws blood from the muscles to the digestive tract. It can also help to stretch the muscles before exercising to prevent cramps. If you exercise during the day, the risk of nighttime leg cramps is reduced. You can also do some gentle stretching exercises before going to sleep. Pregnant women are more at risk of magnesium deficiency. They can ensure that they get enough magnesium through their diet. Magnesium is found in whole grain products, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables and bananas.


The cramp usually goes away on its own and you do not need to go to the doctor. If there is another cause, such as liver disease, you may benefit from muscle relaxants. Kidney disease can also cause cramps. Medicines are only given in exceptional cases. If it concerns a pregnant woman, the cramps will in most cases disappear after delivery.

Nutritional advice

Calf cramps are usually caused by a magnesium deficiency. In Western society, there are several factors that deteriorate the magnesium content in the diet. A lot of magnesium is lost through refined foods. A magnesium deficiency is often seen in combination with fatigue and poor blood and lymph circulation. Stress causes your body to need extra magnesium. Lifestyle plays a major role in this. In addition, food high in fats and sugars can make it more difficult for the body to absorb magnesium. Eating garlic can reduce the risk of cramps.

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