Leg Cramps in Seniors. A Seriously Painful Experience

Leg cramps in seniors tend to increase in frequency with aging. They are usually quite painful involuntary contraction of a muscle or a group of muscles in the thighs, calves or feet.

If this contraction occurs for longer than a few seconds, it moves from being a muscle in spasm to a leg cramp. This article discusses the causes, symptoms, tips for relief and preventive measures for leg cramps in seniors.

Leg cramps are quite common but generally come as a shock to an aging senior the first time they occur and can throw them into a panic.

This article seeks to educate the aging senior about this unexpected occurrence.

Symptoms of Leg Cramps

The most common site of a cramp in aging seniors is the calf.

Obvious sign of a leg cramp is localized intense pain caused by extreme muscle tightening which can last several seconds to several minutes. The muscle at the site of tightening feels tender and hard to the touch.

These cramps in the calf make walking virtually impossible due to extreme pain.

The longer the duration of the cramping, the more sore the muscle will remain even after the acute pain has subsided.

Contractions may occur while trying to sleep but are not uncommon at other times during the day.

These have both been experienced by the author.

Causes of Leg Cramps in Seniors

Aging causes a natural shortening of tendons (tissues connecting muscles to bones) and result in leg muscle cramps. It is estimated that about 75% of leg cramps occur at bedtime or during the night and can disturb the sleep pattern.

Leg Cramps in Seniors
Leg cramps in the calf

Statistics indicate that most adults above the age of 50 will experience leg cramps at least once.

Adults over 60 years of age are 33% more likely to have a leg cramp at night at least once every two months (Rodriguez 2020).

Night leg cramps in seniors are not uncommon.

UNKNOWN CAUSES

Some leg cramps happen for no known reason. Such cramps are called “idiopathic cramps”.

“Secondary cramps in the leg are usually a sign or complication of a more serious health condition.

They are generally associated with some type of lifestyle activity.

KNOWN CAUSES – NON-MEDICAL CONDITIONS

Leg cramps in seniors may be triggered by various factors such as:

Lifestyle – Stress, muscle fatigue from high-intensity exercise or overusing certain muscles, sitting for long periods of sitting in a way to obstruct regular blood flow in the legs and alcoholism (causes dehydration).

Dehydration – Aging is known to predispose to be less hydrated.

Many people have a long habit of getting up in the morning, having their coffee, and then continuing throughout the day drinking more caffeinated beverages than water.

This causes these fluids to be passed out in the form of urine because caffeine is a diuretic. This, of course, results in dehydration.

Changing this bad habit and drinking more water can make a difference (O’Brien 2015)

Electrolyte Imbalance – The electrolytes calcium, potassium and magnesium may be lost during intense muscle use and dehydration through perspiration

Medications – Certain medications for treating conditions such as Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cholesterol and Hypertension have been known to trigger cramping in seniors.

KNOWN CAUSES – MEDICAL CONDITIONS

Leg cramps can sometimes be a symptom of a serious health condition from a very long list:

  • Diabetes
  • Feet abnormalities such as flat feet (absence of the supportive arch in the feet).
  • Heart conditions are caused by blood clots or diseased blood vessels.
  • Kidney failure
  • Low potassium blood levels.
  • Nerve damage due to chemotherapy fused for cancer treatment
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Progressive neuromuscular disease and
  • Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
Leg Cramps in Seniors
Night-time Prevention – Leg Elevation Pillow – Restorology

Tips to Relieve Leg Cramps in Seniors

Leg cramps are painful, and when they do occur, the immediate desire of the affected is to find relief.

It is unhelpful if you do not know what to do as this will continue to prolong the pain. Lying down or sitting down will not provide any relief.

So, what is the best treatment for leg cramps? Can you stop leg cramps immediately?

Stretch. Despite your aversion to doing so, straighten your leg and then flex it several times. Pull your toes towards your shin to stretch the muscles.

Massage the muscles. Use your hands to gently massage the muscles. Sometimes you may find this difficult to do because of the pain.

Stand Up. Press your feet against the floor as forcefully as you can.

You might not have success doing this the first time, but persist until you can do it.

It will provide some relief.

Begin to Walk. While you are walking around, ensure that you periodically wiggle your leg.

Also, try to walk on your heels for some time to activate the muscles opposite your calf. Not very easy, but still doable!

Apply heat or cold to the affected area if possible. To apply heat use a heating pad or apply cold by wrapping a bag of ice in a towel.

Take Over-the-Counter Pain killers if you continue to experience soreness after cramping has subsided.

Finally, take some time to evaluate what could have triggered the event so that you try to manage future events.

Ways to Prevent Leg Cramps in Seniors

Leg Cramps in Seniors
Night-time Prevention – Leg Elevation Pillow – ZEN BAMBOO

Because most leg cramps occur while in bed at night, it is helpful to find ways to prevent, reduce, or treat leg cramps in seniors and the elderly.

Here are a few ways to prevent nocturnal muscle cramps:

  • Drink plenty of fluids during the day to avoid being dehydrated. Drink 6-8 cups of preferably non-caffeinated liquids each day
  • During the day, always wear supportive footwear that is not tight especially if you have flat feet.
  • Stretch your legs, especially your calves and hamstrings before going to bed. Regular daily stretching may also help prevent nocturnal leg cramps
  • Sleep with loose, untucked sheets and comforters to keep feet un-constricted and pointed upward
  • Change your sleeping position if you consistently find that one position triggers nocturnal clamping.
  • Use pillows to elevate or wedge your legs to make your sleeping position more comfortable. Leg elevation pillows have proved beneficial to improving blood circulation in the legs and providing relief during the night when leg cramps in seniors largely occur as they age. Check a previous article on this website for detailed review of several leg elevation pillows and how to go about choosing the right one for you – Leg Cramps in Seniors. The Best Leg Pillows for Night Relief.

Conclusion

Leg cramps in seniors and in general can be caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, blood circulation problems, dehydration, various medical conditions, and an excess or lack of exercise.

However, some people without these indications still experience unexplained muscle cramps with many of them happening in the middle of the night while sleeping.

This article looks at the cause of leg cramps in the night and provides tips for relieving pain along with some preventive measures.

Most importantly, see your healthcare provider immediately if the leg cramps are increasingly frequent with longer periods of pain. They could indicate an underlying medical condition.

Leave a comment if you liked this article or have your own experience to share.

Related Articles

Leg Cramps in Seniors. The Best Leg pillows For Night Relief

Reasons for Leg Cramps. Natural Remedies that Work

References

1. Sharon M. O’Brien (2015) Overcoming nocturnal leg cramps https://www.clinicaladvisor.com/home/the-waiting-room/overcoming-nocturnal-leg-cramps/

2. J. Rodriguez (2020) Leg Cramps in Elderly Adults Griswold Home Care

14 thoughts on “Leg Cramps in Seniors. A Seriously Painful Experience”

  1. Wow, that leg cramp at night is just horrible. I guess this is due to decreased movements. I find that with the working from home scenario, I have to force myself to move away from the computer and simply walk around the house to prevent these cramps. I know others who are just plain suffering from this inactivity crisis and they too have to make an effort to move around.

    Thanks for sharing these tips to alleviate much of the discomfort. I try a bit of massage before going to bed and I find that the discomfort is less frequent. You are however perfectly correct that sometimes the pain is so intense that massaging is more painful. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Hi Ceci, I know this phenomenon very well. I have several autoimmune diseases and suffer for years already from leg cramps, mostly feet cramps. I use magnesium oil on my feet, and it helps very much. When we are getting older, the minerals decline very much, and our body takes them from tissue, so we experience a shortage. Magnesium is essential for many functions. Taking a half teaspoon of Himalayan or Celtic sea salt will do the trick. It helps to recover minerals and especially trace minerals! Beautiful and interesting article! Thank you very much!:)

    Reply
    • Hi Sylvia,
      Cramps are such a pain! Thank you also for the recommendation oof the use of Himalayan or Celtic sea salt to boost Magnesium. I will be trying it.

      Ceci

      Reply
  3. Leg cramps have became more common with age and I now log them for frequency. Most are nighttime calf cramps that go away quickly. The worse ones have been thigh hamstring cramps after exercising and I think sometimes have been prompted by the way I was sitting for a long period of time after exercise. Also one must stretch after exercising as when I stretch after exercising they rarely happen from exercise. I also have discovered pickle juice to drink for day time cramps.

    Reply
    • Yes CWL, leg cramps increase in frequency with age and they differ in the location in the leg, Some seem to have the night-time cramps in the calf area, but I find them more frequently occurring in the foot. I have found relieg by using a leg pillow.
      I will certainly try the pickle juice tip and may write a follow-up article with my observations.
      Thanks for visiting the site.
      Ceci

      Reply
  4. I am 71 and Ihave started having very severe inner thighs cramps, calf cramps, & feet cramps, I have been using topical bio freeze and it helps to rub these gels on my legs before bed and I use a heating pad. I am also being challenged to drive even in the daytime because of these cramps. All my blood tests do not show any deficiencies. I Am at a loss on what to do! I have to get out of bed and get in the shower to put hot water on my legs and I am usually screaming bloody murder!

    Reply
    • Hi Lucy, So sorry to learn about your cramps and especially since your blood tests show no deficiencies. Have you consulted a doctor for an opinion? It is such a shame that you are in so much pain. Have you tried using a couple of pillows to elevate your legs when you sleep or better still use a leg elevation pillow? Although no two individuals are the same, I’ve known a couple of folks who have found this helpful.
      You might find another article written when I was similarly looking for a solution myself informative. There are several reasons why leg cramps develop and there are some natural remedies. Here is the link
      https://metamorphosishub.com/reasons-for-leg-cramps-natural-remedies/
      Finally, I would recommend that you see a doctor if you haven’t already done so because you really should not have to live with so much pain. I really would love to know how all this works out for you as the information could help someone else. Good luck!
      Ceci

      Reply
  5. I too have thigh cramps. In fact they are more like contractions. Blooming awful. My right leg is the worst and it happens at night. I started going to a holistic clinic to have my legs massage every 4-5 weeks. I feel that it does help. And I try to get the right supplement, such as Himalayan salt. I don’t sit down much but if I have been sat at the computer longer than usual the back of the thigh is desperately painful even when I stretch my leg. It can happen in both legs these days. I am 70 now too. KB

    Reply
    • Hi Kathy,
      I can definitely empathize with you. These cramps can be excrutiating!! Although I am not a physician, my personal experience has been to regularly move the legs around during the day to help with blood circulation. I also found that regularly exercising my legs even while I am sitting in front of the television or at my computer desk very helpful. Finally, using a leg or sometimes knee pillow also works wonders for me. I think it is a combination of all three techniques that have helped rid me of these cramps.

      Getting your legs massaged at the holistic clinic as you do is super, as it helps to increase circulation to your legs. I think you should try to exercise the legs more frequently even while you are just sitting down at the computer etc. By the way, have you discussed your situation with your doctor? He might be able to provide additional guidance.

      Thanks
      Ceci

      Reply
  6. I’m writing this now trying not to scream in pain due to terrible foot and shin cramps. It’s 3 am, I’ve just got back into bed but my ankle is still very sore and stiff. I’m 78 but quite active having to take my dog for walks.

    Reply
    • So sorry to hear about your ordeal Jan. I empathize with you because I had a period where I was constantly experiencing these cramps myself – and at such unholy hours just like you too. Keeping the cramps at bay seemed to work well for me with a combination of preventive measures highlighted in the blog. Staying hydrated by drinking lots and lots of water throughout the day and wearing compression socks proved to be helpful for me.

      Regards,
      Ceci

      Reply
  7. 10:18 a.m. – 10/10/22
    Last night was a “nightmare”. I awoke each and every hour with screaming calf, shin and foot cramps. Mostly in my left leg, but right leg, some, but not as much. It was able to ease off a little by walking around the house. slowly. Every time I went back to bed, and fell asleep, the cramps would wake me up again and again. I drink plenty of water (bottled) and bicycle ride. We played bocce yesterday afternoon, and both legs started to hurt a little then. In 2018 I did have hip replacement; and one year after that, I fell. The doctor did take exrays, but said all was ok. (I’m not so sure).

    Reply
    • Hi Constance,
      I empathize with you because I have also experienced these crams and I know that they are really painful! I am not a medic, and since your doctor said all was Ok, I presume that means you do not have medical causes triggering these cramps. The only thing I could see from my research (stated in the article ) could be due to the “intense muscle use” in the afternoon when you played bocce.

      I applaud you for keeping hydrated with lots of water throughout the day. My cramps were triggered by by not drinking enough water during the day, with a preference for coffee. Once I corrected this and used some of the tips in the article, I was in better shape.
      Ceci

      Reply

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