What causes leg cramps?

Leg cramps can be due to muscle overuse, injury, or fatigue and may be related to decreased blood supply or irritation of the nerves leading to a muscle. Dehydration and electrolyte depletion can increase the likelihood of developing muscle cramps. Medications may also contribute to the development of leg cramps. Dehydration can also occur with excessive sweating, which may occur when exercising in hot weather.

Causes of leg cramps

Leg cramps may be caused by diseases, disorders or conditions including:

  • Dehydration
  • Low blood calcium, magnesium, potassium, or sodium
  • Muscle fatigue, injury, or overuse
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing or blockage of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls, which limits blood flow to the extremities)
  • Sciatica (pain or weakness in the leg due to damage to the sciatic nerve from the spine to the back of the leg)
  • Side effects of medications, such as diuretics and statins
  • Spinal cord stenosis

Serious or life-threatening causes of leg cramps

In some cases, leg cramps may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Significant electrolyte abnormalities

Questions for diagnosing the cause of leg cramps

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your leg cramps including:

  • How long have you had leg cramps?
  • What part of the leg do they affect?
  • How often do they occur and how long do they last?
  • Does anything seem to bring them on?
  • Does anything make them better?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of leg cramps?

Because leg cramps can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment for leg cramps that are not relieved with self-care measures can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Loss of mobility
  • Overuse injuries
  • Progressive symptoms
  • Skin changes

References:

Leg pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003182.htm. Accessed May 23, 2011.

Muscle cramps. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/musclecramps.html. Accessed May 23, 2011.

INTRODUCTION

What are leg cramps?

Leg cramps, sometimes called charley horses, are sudden and uncontrollable muscle contractions or spasms. They can occur with exercise or while sleeping. The pain from muscle cramps can be intense, but can often be relieved with gentle stretching and massage.... Read more about leg crampsintroduction

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with leg cramps?

Leg cramps may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that frequently affect your muscles may also involve other body systems.... Read more about leg crampssymptoms

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles


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