What Are Leg Cramps And Why Do You Get Them?

We’ve all had that moment when we’re minding our own business, probably lying down. We go to move and suddenly the most intense pain is shooting through your muscles. If you’ve managed to stand, you sit right back down again. Walking it off seems like a pipe dream. You just wait for the pain to let you go. You’re not playing sports. You’re not doing anything overly active. What are leg cramps? The Mayo Clinic defines it as “a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more or your muscles.” 

Why does this happen? There are multiple causes for cramping or Charley Horse as they’ve been affectionately called. Who is Charley? And why can’t he keep his horse to himself? In all seriousness, there are several potential causes, maybe even a combination of causes. 

  1. Dehydration – You’re not drinking enough water. We’re all not drinking enough water.
  2. Poor Circulation – Blood’s just not moving well through your legs.
  3. No Stretching – You dove right into a workout without properly stretching your muscles.
  4. Muscle Fatigue – You overdid it because you want results faster.
  5. Too Hot – Temperature outside is not conducive to exercise. 
  6. Magnesium/Potassium Deficiency – Your body isn’t getting the vitamins it needs.

Most minor leg cramps are temporary and go away as quickly as they come on. Some overstay their welcome and can last for considerably longer periods of time. This should prompt a visit to a doctor. If you’re feeling any of the following, please consult with a physician:

  1. When the pain is even more severe than normal and doesn’t go away quickly.
  2. When they aren’t as a result of over-exercise or prolonged periods of continuous exercise.
  3. When the affected leg starts to have swelling or has a reddish tinge to the skin.
  4. When conditions don’t improve after applying standard self-care procedures, like massaging.
  5. When they are common, happening more often and less now and then.
  6. When muscle weakness follows an attack.

Normally, it’s just something we have to live with. They’re not serious, don’t last long. Harmless. A majority of the time. Sometimes, however, they are symptoms of something else being wrong in your body. Something that might be serious. 

Because blood flow is an important factor in cramping, persistent and crippling spasms could be a sign that there are blockages in your blood vessels. Not only will this lead to high blood pressure, but it puts the person at risk for heart disease. At the very least, you likely have arteriosclerosis

Sometimes, we mistake the misfiring nerves for something minor, when really our bodies are trying to tell us something. Neurological conditions (like Parkinson’s, neuropathy or spine problems like compressed nerves) can also be causing the cramps. Other times, it’s a sign that we might need to make lifestyle changes. Cirrhosis of the liver or Hepatitis can also be a source of leg pain. Too many impurities in our blood can lead to weakened blood vessels, which is a sign that the kidneys might be in distress. People with diabetes and thyroid problems also experience higher than average amounts of leg cramps. These last few are especially true when dealing with leg cramps at night.

Like with most diseases, some of us are more likely to be susceptible to serious leg pains and their potential serious causes than others. Age is a factor. People over 50 should be more concerned about prolonged or persistent leg pain than young people. This is because as we age, our muscles naturally atrophy and that process starts roughly around 45. Pregnant women tend to experience leg cramps more, but the reasons why are not well known yet. And sedentary lifestyle/work can also lead to more than the average amount of cramping. Make sure you take the time to get up and move around, just like they advise you to do after taking a long airplane flight. 

We’re not looking to overly worry you or add any tension, but it’s important to know what our bodies tell us when they want to tell us something. It’s usually something you NEED to know. That said, sometimes a charley horse is just a charley horse. Pay attention to the subsequent signs listed above. Are you a part of the at risk group for something more serious? If yes and it’s a persistent problem, get tested and see a physician.

To find a LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics lab near you, visit our lab locator.

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