The reasons for leg cramps are sought by millions of people around the world who suffer from very painful cramps or spasms in the thigh, calf and foot. This often happens during the night but can also occur during the day because of exercise. Seniors are no exception.
There are 10 causes of leg cramps split between general causes and causes due to medical conditions. Some natural ways of treating them are discussed in addition to some simple exercises.
Leg cramps caused by medical conditions cannot be treated by simple remedies. Diagnosis and treatment of these conditions can only be made by a doctor.
Reasons For Leg Cramps – General Causes
Too much exercise especially when your muscles are not used to it can cause cramping and spasms in the legs. This is one of the reasons for leg cramps and pain.
This frequently occurs for example if you live a sedentary lifestyle and then go for a long walk, run or other activity.
It is why you are encouraged to start any exercise regimen slowly and gradually build up the intensity. Cramping and spasms in the legs caused by over exertion can be particularly painful.
Over exertion can be one of the reasons for leg cramps in elderly people because many typically maintain a sedentary lifestyle.
REMEDY: Consume sunflower seeds, almonds or wheat germ oil to speed up recovery after over exercising the muscles. The vitamin E they contain is released to help repair plasma membranes in the muscle cells.
Low Vitamin E
Vitamin E is an essential vitamin which increases oxygen to the muscles and prevents cramping. If levels are low in the body, you may experience muscle tenderness, cramps and even heart pain (angina). Vitamin E can prevent angina by strengthening the heart muscles.
REMEDY: Consume sunflower seeds, avocado, lettuce, asparagus, and almonds to get more vitamin E into the body. This will help to increase the oxygen capacity in the muscle cells. Oxygen deprivation in muscle cells is a known cause of cramping.
REASONS FOR LEG CRAMPS – ELECTROLYTES
The most common cause of muscle cramps and spasms in the legs is a deficiency in minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium and chloride). Muscle cells require lots of potassium, magnesium and calcium to function properly.
REMEDY: Consume pumpkin seeds, avocados, kale, Swiss chard and almonds to help boost the intake of potassium and magnesium.
Sea kelp is one of the highest sources of calcium along with small-boned fish like anchovies or sardines and eating them boosts calcium levels.
LACK OF SALT
Salt is essential for the human body and is required for proper muscle function. Salt’s chemical name is sodium chloride derived from a combination of sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl). Sodium is the electrolyte used to electrically charge muscle cells.
Consequently, if you have low salt levels, you may experience twitching in the muscles or cramping.
REMEDY: Avoid the use of commercial grade salts as they are loaded with harmful fillers like aluminum, maltodextrin, and anti-clumping agents. Use of Pink Himalayan salt or ancient seabed salts is recommended.
REASONS FOR LEG CRAMPS – MEDICATIONS
Many medications have some serious side effects which can trigger leg cramps if they deplete or block minerals from entering body cells. This is a possible source of cramps in the elderly.
Some of the most common medicines which cause leg cramps are statins for cholesterol and osteoporosis, anti-acid medications, anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen, calcium channel blockers, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, proton pump inhibitors, and fake estrogen tablets.
Antibiotics used for treating infections can also cause problems with the muscles and tendons. These antibiotics are sometimes able to alter the pH of the colon to block some nutrient uptake.
REMEDY: Always check on the side effect of any medication before use and discuss with your doctor. If after doing so, you begin to observe cramping and spasms, return to your doctor for a re-evaluation.
Sometimes a combination of 2 or more medications taken together for different ailments can interact and cause problems.
LOW STOMACH ACID
Indigestion, heartburn, bloating or acid reflux are conditions caused by low stomach acid. This is very common as we age because the stomach starts to become very alkaline (high pH).
To effectively absorb minerals like magnesium and potassium you require a stomach with strong acidity (low pH).
Remedy: Take 1-2 apple cider vinegar capsules before a meal to create strong acidity in the stomach to allow better absorption of electrolyte minerals.
Eating an apple before a meal would also produce a similar effect albeit on a much smaller scale.
Reasons For Leg Cramps – Causes Due to Medical Conditions
People with bulging belly fat may have insulin resistance. They usually have a problem absorbing potassium, magnesium and other nutrients into the muscle cells especially if diabetic resulting in muscle spasms.
These muscles weaken over time because of their inability to absorb enough protein and amino acids.
REMEDY: Consult your physician if you suspect this condition and request a special test to detect this. Also, follow a low-carb diet such as keto or perform intermittent fasting to heal insulin resistance.
DEEP VEIN THROMBOSIS (DVT)
This is a blood clot that causes cramping especially in one leg. The pain may be worse when bending the foot upward towards the knees.
REMEDY: Consult your doctor
REASONS FOR LEG CRAMPS – BLOCKED ARTERIES
In rare cases, a blockage in the arteries may block blood flow to the muscles and cause cramps in the leg. This usually occurs in diabetics, ex or current smokers and those who have had high blood pressure for a long time.
REMEDY: Consult your doctor
This diagnosis can only be made by a doctor. Cancer anywhere in the body causes imbalances of electrolytes and minerals (especially potassium and magnesium) triggering leg cramps.
Stretch the cramped muscle and gently massage it to help it relax. If you’re unable to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair with your affected leg extended. Try to bend the knee if you have a calf cramp
Try to pull the top of the foot on the affected side towards the head while the leg remains in a straightened position.
This technique is also helpful to ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp.
If the cramp is in the front thigh (quadriceps), use a chair to steady and then try to pull the foot on the affected side up towards the buttock area (Mayo Clinic 2021).
Perform a simple calf stretch each night before lying down to sleep.
Tiptoe over a step and stretch the foot down. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat four times on each leg.
Use a warm towel or heating pad or ice to massage the cramped muscle with ice may relieve pain.
These simple exercises are very effective in preventing leg cramps during the night as the stretch stimulates blood and oxygen flow into the muscles. In addition, leg elevation pillows are beneficial as thy help maintain good blood circulation in the legs. Refer to a previous article ( Leg Cramps in Seniors. The Best Leg Pillows for Night Relief) on this site for detailed review of different types of leg elevation pillows and what you need to consider when making a choice
Some reasons for leg cramps can be more easily identified. Although very uncomfortable, there are some simple natural remedies and exercises that make leg cramps and spasms more manageable. Causes due to medical conditions can only be diagnosed and treated by a doctor.
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Mayo Clinic (2021) Muscle cramp. Diagnosis and Treatment https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350825
Mediline Plus (2019) Muscle Cramps www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003193.htm