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.
Statistics indicate that most adults above the age of 50 will experience leg cramps at least once while 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.
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:
- 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
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral artery disease
- Progressive neuromuscular disease and
- Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
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 stopleg 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
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 during the day 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 unconstricted 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.
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.
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