Nocturnal Leg Cramps Can Ruin Your Sleep!

I only have 2 pain-related symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS): migraine and nocturnal leg cramps. I can usually nip the migraines in the bud with a large cup of strong coffee (I live in Starbucks land, so that's not a problem, ever!). But the leg cramps are a bit more tricky, especially because they interrupt my sleep.

It's not just the pain that's the problem

Granted, getting a strong charley horse in my calf at 2 am is not going to make me a happy camper. There will be the leap out of bed, the awkward strut up and down the hallway as I try to work the knot out of my foot where it's seized up. It can take at least 10 minutes before my foot relaxes enough to let go of my leg muscle.

But by then, my stress hormones have kicked in, leaving me with an elevated pulse and fully awake when I should be sleeping.

In the field of sleep medicine, nocturnal leg cramps are symptomatic of disordered sleep. For good reason, right? Anything that disrupts a night of sleep, such as a frequent need to use the bathroom, unsettling nightmares, or leg cramps, leads to disordered sleep.1

Meanwhile, untreated sleep disorders lead to sleep deprivation and the long list of other problems it sets off in its own chain of dominoes.1

Causes for nighttime charley horses

Nocturnal leg cramps are common, even among people without neuromuscular disorders. There are many reasons why you might have these acute muscular pains, and not all of them are related to MS:2

  • You might have flat feet (fallen arches)
  • You might spend too much time sitting every day
  • You might have something called restless legs syndrome (RLS)
  • You might have a blockage in a leg artery
  • You might be pregnant
  • You might be middle-aged or older
  • You might have an electrolyte imbalance
  • You might have another condition that can cause cramping, such as diabetes
  • You might be taking a medicine that has nighttime leg cramps as a side effect
  • You might be dehydrated
  • You might have overexerted yourself
  • You have MS or other neuromuscular disorders

See a doctor about regular problems with leg cramps at night

Those who routinely suffer through leg cramps when they should be sleeping may be at risk for ignoring other conditions or changes that reflect their MS disease course. For instance, RLS is a condition that can lead to nocturnal leg cramps, though the two are not the same. However, RLS is very common and eminently treatable.2

Also, aside from the fact they are so acutely painful, nocturnal leg cramps are also disruptive to the healing sleep that your brain and body need.2

If you miss sleep every night because of them, you are destined to become sleep-deprived. This will increase your sensitivity to pain, worsen your problems with daytime fatigue, and compromise your immune system.3

Whatever you do, don't write these pains off as "part of MS." They might be something else entirely, and there might be an easy treatment for them. You won't really know for sure what is causing your nighttime leg cramps without seeing a medical professional.

A doctor can run a number of tests to identify the root cause of your problem. From these results, an MS specialist can review things like your medicines and therapies and may even investigate the possibility of relapse.

Treating nocturnal leg cramps

Your doctor will likely offer treatment options that include drugs, supplements, or physical therapy. You cannot fix chronic problems with nocturnal leg cramps by using over-the-counter treatments or tried-and-true home remedies. That is for a doctor to help you manage.4

However, if you only have occasional nocturnal leg cramps, these approaches can offer some relief:2

  • Stretch the muscles in your feet, ankles, calves, and upper legs during the day and right before bed
  • Wear shoes that have good heel support
  • Drink more water to avoid dehydration, and avoid caffeine products and alcohol
  • Make sure your diet has adequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron, and other minerals to ensure your electrolytes are in a working balance

Remember, anything that chronically disrupts your sleep can have a negative long-term impact on your disease course. Your brain needs sleep to fight MS. If your sleep's constantly being interrupted (for whatever reason), you're destined to never get enough deep sleep, opening the door to future chronic health problems.3

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