Leg cramps – why they occur & what helps to prevent them

from Mag. Margit Weichselbraun
on 15.04.2024
Calf cramps Calf cramps

Leg cramps can occur suddenly – often during exercise or at night. One cause may be magnesium deficiency – but that is not the only cause. Learn more.

What are leg cramps?

Leg cramps occur when some or all of the muscles in the lower leg contract abruptly, painfully and without our intentional involvement. The affected areas harden noticeably. After a few seconds to minutes, the cramp ends. However, painful after-cramps can often still be felt.

Leg cramps at night

You are abruptly awoken from your pleasant slumbers: Your lower leg is painful and noticeably hardened. The reason why we are attacked by leg cramps at night has not yet been conclusively clarified. Researchers suspect that a drop in magnesium levels could be behind the phenomenon, which below a certain “low level” tends to favour muscle cramps. Also the cooling of the lower leg during sleep (e.g. if it protrudes from the duvet) as well as an attempt of the muscle to reduce permanent stress are discussed in this context.

Leg cramps during sport or exercise

Leg cramps are also not unknown to athletes. Like a car driving in the fast lane, athletes are also subject to "excess consumption" when it comes to micronutrients. If the supply falls by the wayside at full gas, the muscles tense up in the face of the supply bottlenecks.
A fluid and electrolyte imbalance is just as serious as muscular strain. Sweating during training and heavy physical work can cause the body to lose up to one litre of fluid per hour. At the same time, plenty of electrolytes – minerals dissolved in bodily fluids such as potassium, calcium or magnesium – are also lost through the sweat. These losses can ultimately end in impaired muscle function and uncontrollable muscle spasms.

What is missing from the body during leg cramps?

Occasional leg cramps are no cause for concern. Although the cramps are extremely unpleasant, they are usually harmless. Only in a few cases are they symptomatic of a more serious disease. Doctors divide leg cramps into three categories, depending on the cause:

Paraphysiological cramps

Paraphysiological calf cramps occur occasionally – e.g. during pregnancy or after physical exertion or running – and are usually based on an imbalance in the electrolyte and water balance.

Idiopathic cramps

Idiopathic cramps occur without recognisable causes. Even nocturnal leg cramps often fall into this category.

Symptomatic cramps

These cramps can occur in the course of certain diseases – often in the area of the muscles, nerves, hormones or metabolism. Convulsions triggered by medications or poisoning also fall into this section.

Very multi-layered: The causes of muscle cramps

Leg cramps due to magnesium deficiency

If you are suddenly laid low by a calf cramp, you have to find a cause. It doesn’t take long before you hit on magnesium. This is not surprising, since our grandmothers were already clued up on the typical magnesium deficiency symptom of "calf cramps".
In fact, from a scientific point of view, this connection is not so far-fetched, after all, magnesium ensures that our muscles relax after tension and the excitability of the nerve cells is down-regulated. However, if the mineral is missing, its counterpart calcium gains dominance and the tendency for leg muscle cramps increases.
Athletes, people under stress, pregnant women and breastfeeding women should pay particular attention to their magnesium balance. People who regularly consume alcohol, take certain medications (e.g. stomach acid blockers), eat an unbalanced diet or suffer from certain intestinal diseases are also more likely to suffer from a magnesium deficiency.

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Other causes of leg cramps despite good magnesium supply

It is generally well known that a magnesium deficiency can lead to leg cramps. The fact that other electrolyte disorders, severe water loss as well as illnesses and medications can also increase the tendency to cramps is less well known.

Dehydration of the body

If our body lacks water, our electrolyte balance can also be out of balance. As a result, our nerves can send uncontrolled impulses, which in turn can lead to muscle cramps.
Dehydration may occur, for example, in the course of gastrointestinal infections, severe sweating, inflammatory bowel diseases or diabetes insipidus. Medications such as diuretics can also dry out our body.

Electrolyte imbalances

Not only magnesium deficiency, but also other mineral deficiencies, such as potassium, sodium or calcium, can lead to an impaired function of the muscle fibres. These deficits can be attributed to different causes. In addition to malnutrition, certain diseases (e.g. diarrhoea, intestinal and kidney diseases) and medications can also be affect our electrolyte supply.

Mineral deficiencies can be a breeding ground for leg cramps. Those who know their mineral balance can react to supply bottlenecks and preempt any muscle cramps.
The Basic micronutrient test, which can be carried out in the Biogena PLAZA, not only illuminates your mineral levels using modern whole blood diagnostics, it also investigates the state of many of your other micronutrients. This also makes this premium check a top-class addition to your annual health care.

If overexerted muscles are the cause

If you are training hard and beyond your limits, the upshot can be muscle cramps. The same applies to people who decide to reach for their trainers after a long hiatus. Severe sweating results in the loss of important electrolytes. As a result, the muscles may be under-supplied and their proper function may be impaired.
That is why you are always well advised to prevent muscle overload by adapting your sports training to your own performance and starting slowly, especially after longer breaks.

If diseases are the cause

Thank goodness that painful leg cramps are rarely associated with illnesses. However, a number of internal diseases can lead to disorders in the metabolic, electrolyte, water or hormone balance and cause muscle cramps (e.g. diabetes mellitus, kidney diseases, hypothyroidism). Leg deformities, arthrosis, circulatory disorders and neurological diseases can also trigger leg cramps.

If medication is the cause

Leg cramps can also be caused by prescription drugs. Cramp-inducing side effects are primarily attributed to the following medications:

  • DiureticsBlood pressure lowering agents (some beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers)
  • Cholesterol lowering agents
  • Asthma medicine
  • Neuroleptics
  • Migraine remedies
  • Hormonal contraceptives (e.g. contraceptive pill)

Dealing with leg cramps in acute cases – what helps quickly?

Acute leg cramps can overpower even the fittest. In order to fight an acute seizure, immediate action is required. How to stop leg cramps immediately:

Stretch against the direction of the cramps: 

During cramps of the calves and the rear thigh muscles, pulling the toes towards the shins while simultaneously stepping off the heels has proven effective. If, on the other hand, the front thigh muscles are cramping, pull the affected leg towards your bottom whilst holding the foot.

Gentle massages:

 In addition to stretching, gentle massaging of the affected muscle areas can also have a pain-relieving effect – the spasms are relaxed and the muscles are better supplied with blood.

How to get rid of leg cramps: other home remedies for leg cramps

Grandma’s box of tricks also contains other tried-and-tested home remedies for muscle cramps. These gentle methods include:

  • Seizure-relieving calf wrap with warm towels
  • A relaxing hot water bottle
  • Warm foot and calf showers
  • Alternating showers
  • Relaxing baths
  • Massaging with circulation-boosting rubbing alcohol
  • Lukewarm beef or chicken stock for fluid and electrolyte balance

How to stop leg cramps - Bizarre tips from science: “Use vinegar for leg cramps!”

In 2010, a US research team came up with a somewhat unusual recommendation for leg cramps. According to the researchers, the liquid in which pickles are stored reduces the time of the seizures in sports-associated muscle cramps by almost half (after 85 seconds on average). The study authors defined one millilitre of cucumber water per kilogram of body weight as the ideal dosage.

Experts believe the acid taste is responsible for this extraordinary effect, which may reduce the activity of certain nerve cells (alpha-motoneurons) and thus have an antispasmodic effect (Miller K.C. et al. 2010).

8 tips to prevent leg cramps

In order not to be the victim of calf cramps at all, certain measures can be taken to prevent the following:

  1. Water

    Whether in sweaty everyday life or strenuous sports: Always keep your body hydrated. Ideally, it is best to use still mineral water or highly diluted fruit juices. Sugary drinks such as lemonade and undiluted fruit juice should be avoided.
  2. Coffee in moderation

    A start-the-day coffee in the morning, a gossip coffee in the lunch break, a pick-me-up coffee in the afternoon. Some people find good reasons to reach for their caffeine fix several times a day. However, when it comes to leg cramps, coffee should not be a standard drink, but rather a special treat.
  3. Electrolytes in balance

    Our electrolyte balance also needs to be taken care of. Nutrient-rich foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grain products in particular – provide our bodies with essential minerals. If there is an increased need, ideally confirmed by whole blood diagnostics, various mineral products are available.
  4. The right footwear.

    If you want to prevent leg cramps, your shoes should also be considered. Comfortable, good support and not restrictive – that’s how the right footwear should feel.
  5. Cramp-inducing toxins

    Alcohol and nicotine often prove to be the “bad boys” in health matters – and this is also true in the case of leg cramps. Therefore, limit the enjoyment of both as much as possible.
  6. Always warm-up before sport

    If you are keen on sport, you should warm up and stretch thoroughly beforehand. This loosens the muscles and counteracts injuries and cramps.
  7. Good night, calf cramps!

    Even with nocturnal leg cramps, stretching exercises before going to bed are worth a try. Alternatively or in addition, a relaxing evening walk may also reduce the occurrence of nocturnal leg cramps. If the night-time cramps originate from a magnesium deficiency, it is recommended to take magnesium immediately before going to bed.
  8. Preventive measures in sleep

    You can fight leg cramps at night by sleeping on your side. This reinforces the (often) shortened calf position of the day, whereas when sleeping on your back the calves naturally lengthen and thus their tendency to cramp is reduced.

When to worry about leg cramps: should you go to the doctor for leg cramps?

Occasional leg cramps are generally harmless. However, if these muscle cramps occur more frequently, become persistent cal cramps and cannot be dealt with through simple measures and if unusual areas of the body are affected, then a doctor should be consulted. Also unusual concomitant symptoms such as tingling, numbness, paralysis and movement restrictions should be brought to the attention of a physician.


You don’t need to suffer painful leg cramps in silence! There are simple ways of dealing with them. A laboratory diagnostic blood analysis can offer perfect protective help, by detecting potential disorders in the mineral balance and, if necessary, provide assistance in the restoration of the electrolyte balance.

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