Here's the scene: You're just dozing off, snug in your bed, when WHAM! Suddenly your right calf muscle contracts into a big ball of hurt. You throw back the covers and jump out of bed, nearly falling over as you hop on one foot, desperately massaging the offending muscle - all the while trying not to wake the rest of your household...
The old Charlie Horse. Everybody gets one from time to time. A Charlie Horse, otherwise known as a nocturnal leg cramp can be the result of something simple like too much exercise or breaking in a new pair of shoes. Or it could be caused by something more sinister, like a medical condition.
Chronic health problems such as diabetes can cause problems with leg cramps. Hormone imbalances, pregnancy and vascular problems can also be the cause, as can a bad case of the stomach flu with diarrhea.
A deficiency in the electrolyte, potassium may bring on leg cramps. Potassium is an essential element the body requires in order to regulate heartbeat and blood pressure. A deficiency in potassium can not only cause leg cramps, but also a host of other symptoms like chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and memory problems. To decrease the chance of having a potassium deficiency, it is important to eat a well balanced diet, that includes potassium rich foods such as bananas, orange juice, dried apricots and raisins, peas and potatoes. Also include foods rich in vitamins A, E, calcium and magnesium as these work in harmony with potassium to maintain the balance of fluid within the cell walls and keep muscle tissue relaxed and not cramped into a knot.
Certain prescription medications, in particular blood pressure medications such as hydrochlorothiazide-type diuretics, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors can deplete the body of potassium and thereby increase the likelihood of leg cramps. Talk to your doctor if this becomes a problem and he or she may prescribe a potassium suplement or suggest a dietary change.
Athletes already know that simple dehydration can also bring on a Charlie Horse. Many non-sporty folks don't drink enough fresh water each day and end up lunging around the bedroom in the middle of the night with an easily preventable cramp. If you feel thirsty - you are already becoming dehydrated. It is recommended that we drink 6 - 8 glasses of water every day to stay properly hydrated.
Once you are in the midst of a cramp, try gently massaging the calf muscle, applying a warm compress - or ice, depending on which feels better to you at the time, or stretch the calf muscle by grabbing your toes and gently pulling them back toward you (best to do this while sitting down of course...).
Remember, if muscle cramps are frequent and bothersome, it is best to have a talk with your doctor to determine the cause and the best treatment for you.