Interactive Health Service Clinic
It happens as you sleep and wakes you in a panic - your calf muscle cramps and causes horrific, sharp pain that may last for quite a while. Why does it happen and how can you prevent it?
You have more than likely experienced it. Your calf muscle cramps, causing a nightmarish pain. The pain is excruciating and you thrash upon the bed uselessly until it finally begins to subside, leaving you with a painful reminder throughout the next day.
This phenomenon, called "night cramps," besieges many of us on occasions; however it is more prevalent in older people. It is estimated that one in every three people in their 60's and some 50% of people aged 80 and over suffer from night cramps on a regular basis. Four out of ten people experience them at least three times weekly and at times, every night.
In most cases the cause of this phenomenon is unknown, thus it is called in medical terms, "idiopathic" (of unknown origin). One theory maintains that when the muscle is in a shortened state during sleep it is stimulated to contract. Since it is already in a shortened state, the additional contraction causes muscle spasm. This occurs mainly while lying in bed with slightly bent knees and feet pointing downward. The calf muscle is even shorter while in this position and tends to cramp.
The cramping may also occur following medicinal treatment. Among the medications which increase the risk of muscle cramp are those which treat high blood pressure and heart failure, lithium, asthma medications and more.
Additional causes of increased risk of muscle cramps are dehydration, salt imbalance in the blood, earlier extremely strenuous physical activity, third trimester pregnancy, hypoparathyroidism, peripheral blood vessel problems, the consumption of large quantities of alcohol, liver illnesses and nervous system disorders.
What may be done to prevent this phenomenon?
If you are healthy, the cramping is likely to be "idiopathic." (as mentioned; of unknown origin). In that case, you may stretch the calf muscles before going to bed. You will find that getting out of bed as soon as the pain starts and pressing the heel hard into the floor will instantly resolve the problem and stop the pain.
If there is residual pain after the spasm has ceased, simple pain relievers might ease it somewhat.
In the meantime, you may do some preventative stretching. Although there is no scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of this method, it does not hurt to stretch, so it is certainly worth a try. It is recommended to stretch three times daily, for five minutes each time.
And here is how it is done: Stand 60-90 centimetres from the wall. Bend forward slightly and lean against the wall, keeping your heels flat on the floor. You will feel the calf muscle stretch. Repeat a number of times.
Sleeping in the proper position may also help to prevent muscle spasm. If you sleep on your back, place a pillow beneath your feet and ensure that the top covers are loose, rather than tucked in tightly, to prevent your toes and feet from being pulled downward while sleeping as this may cause spasms.
If the spasms occur frequently speak with your doctor, who may advise that you carry out blood tests, or recommend a change in any medication you may be taking which could be causing the problem. If the problem recurs frequently, the doctor might suggest taking a medication called quinine.
This medication has proven to be successful for those who suffer this problem frequently. However, quinine should not be taken by pregnant women or by anyone with G6PD deficiency, visual nerve problems or anyone who has had previous hemolytic blood deficiency.