En español | It’s happened to practically everyone: A sudden, painful cramp in your leg or foot startles you awake in the middle of the night. Studies suggest that one-third to one-half of people over 60 get these involuntary muscle contractions on a regular basis, and their frequency may increase with age. Lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several excruciating minutes, cramps occur when irritated nerves send muscles a signal to repeatedly contract.
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No one knows for sure exactly what causes cramps in otherwise healthy adults, but a number of risk factors may make older people more susceptible, says Basil Eldadah, M.D., program officer at the National Institute on Aging. These include deficiencies in key minerals, not getting enough to drink, poor muscle conditioning and certain medications. Though leg cramps aren’t typically life-threatening, he says, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor to be sure they aren’t related to an underlying condition.
So how can you keep muscle spasms from interrupting your sleep and generally interfering with your quality of life? Don’t reach for quinine, a drug prescribed for leg cramps since the 1940s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now warns against its use because of potentially serious side effects. Instead, try these tips.
If you’re in the throes of a cramp, stretching can provide relief. For a foot or calf cramp, sit or lie down and flex the toes of the affected leg or foot upward toward your nose, says Eldadah. This action works by pulling the calf and foot muscles in the opposite direction of the contracted muscles. Massaging the area could minimize discomfort too.
Studies looking at whether stretching can prevent nighttime cramps yield mixed results. Still, some experts recommend loosening muscles that are prone to cramping by doing stretches before bed. “Stretching may help and it has minimal risk,” says Eldadah.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website includes additional stretches, tailored for older adults, that concentrate on the calf muscles, the quadriceps muscles in the front of the leg and the hamstring muscles in the back.
Check your meds
A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that several diuretics (used to treat hypertension), statins (used to treat high blood cholesterol) and long-acting beta agonists (used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among other conditions) may worsen nocturnal cramps. If cramps become a problem after you’ve started taking one of these types of medications, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
Check your electrolytes
Muscle cramps have been linked with low levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium. Though research has not confirmed that a diet rich in these minerals helps fend off cramps, it may well help. Bananas and oranges, which are often associated with cramp relief, are high in potassium; brown rice, almonds and avocadoes are good sources of magnesium; and spinach contains all three minerals.
Get enough to drink
Studies have not proven that dehydration causes leg cramps, but it may contribute to them. As we age, we become less sensitive to thirst and often drink less as a result. Remember to drink water during and after a workout.
Loosen the covers
Standing, sitting or lying in certain positions can aggravate muscles and lead to cramps. Sleeping on your back under covers that are tightly tucked in can press down your toes, possibly causing calf and foot muscles to tighten, and cramp. The University of California at Berkeley’s Complete Home Wellness Handbook recommends sleeping on your side with your knees bent or loosening sheets and blankets to keep them from weighing down your feet.
Wear comfortable shoes
People with flat feet may be more vulnerable to foot and leg cramps, so wearing footwear with good arch supports is important, notes the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. Also, try to avoid high heels, which can stress foot and calf muscles by keeping them in a shortened or tightened position for long periods of time.