You have just slept relaxed and quiet, then suddenly cramps develop in the muscles and cause great pain. Often the legs are affected - especially the calves. And these calf cramps often occur at night and wake us up from sleep. There can be many causes for this, but relatively often a lack of magnesium is the reason for night cramps. Women tend to be affected more often, but the risk also increases with age.
How do calf cramps occur in general?
In general, certain muscles contract during a cramp. If the so-called large calf muscles are affected, they harden due to calf cramps - and usually remain hard for a few days. The so-called toe flexor, which begins on the back of the lower leg, is also often affected. For nocturnal calf cramps, you can even develop a so-called cramp tendency. This means that the affected muscles contract over and over again in the same place.
Why a lack of magnesium causes calf cramps
Magnesium has various functions in the body. Among other things, it acts as an antagonist to calcium: while calcium is responsible for tensing the muscles, magnesium should then relax them again. If the body lacks magnesium, the calcium ensures that the nerves begin to involuntarily contract muscles - and the cramp begins. Frequent calf cramps are therefore a typical first sign of a magnesium deficiency and a generally unbalanced electrolyte balance.
And why do these leg cramps occur at night?
An endogenous mechanism also plays a role here: the body's magnesium level naturally falls during periods of rest. However, it can also fall too low, which can trigger muscle contractions during unconscious movement during sleep. We usually only wake up when the muscle is already hardened and severe pain occurs.
And how does a magnesium deficiency arise?
There are usually three possible triggers for a magnesium deficiency:
- An increased need that arises, for example, through pregnancy. The need for magnesium is particularly high in the last trimester of pregnancy. But athletes also have a higher requirement because the muscles use up the magnesium present in the body more quickly during training.
- Increased excretion of magnesium, which can also affect athletes. Because during training, minerals are excreted through sweating. But various drugs can also accelerate the elimination of minerals.
- Inhibited absorption of magnesium by the body, for example as a result of illness.
Nocturnal calf cramps: an overview of other causes
For calf cramps (but also general cramps in the muscles ) there can be other causes in addition to the lack of nutrients. These include:
- Overloading the muscles in athletes: If you train a lot and don't allow your muscles to rest in between, you have an increased risk of calf cramps at night.
- Underutilization of the muscles in non-athletes: Those who do not train at all also suffer more from leg cramps. It also plays a role that muscles tend to shorten when inactive.
- Bad posture: If you have bad posture, the same muscles are always under tension, which can lead to muscle cramps.
- Wrong footwear: If the feet and legs are unilaterally stressed by the wrong footwear, this can lead to calf cramps. This applies to shoes with high heels, for example.
- One-sided nutrition: the body only gets all the nutrients if we eat a balanced diet.
- Dehydration: If we drink too little, this can have serious health consequences. Nocturnal leg cramps are just one of them.
Treatment: First aid against leg cramps
Though calf cramps are often attack-like, most people instinctively use the correct remedy by stretching the calf muscles. The leg is stretched out, the heel is pushed forward and the toes are pulled towards the body. You can also use your hands to help. In most cases, this is enough to resolve the spasm after a short time. It can also help lightly massaging the affected muscle, shaking your legs a little, or standing up and walking around carefully.
Preventing nocturnal calf cramps at night
If the cramps only come back every now and then, it doesn't have to mean anything bad. If, however, leg cramps occur regularly at night, the possible causes should be clarified by a doctor. If a disease is a cause, it must first be treated. Otherwise, it often helps to adjust your lifestyle a little. The following measures can help:
- Eat a balanced diet: For a balanced diet, we should focus on lots of fruit and vegetables. Dairy products and lots of fish are also on the menu, as is some lean meat. We can get important dietary fiber from whole grain products, for example.
- Drink a lot: So that we are optimally supplied with fluids, we should drink at least 2.5 liters a day. Especially water, but also herbal tea is allowed.
- Refraining from stimulants: We should completely refrain from smoking and alcohol. This is generally better for your health, but alcohol in particular can also promote calf cramps, as it has a dehydrating effect.
- Movement: If you hardly move in everyday life, you should definitely take some time for short training units. Anyone who does 30 minutes of sport three times a week is doing a lot for their health. For enthusiastic athletes, on the other hand, the following applies: The muscles also need breaks between the individual workouts. In the worst case, overdoing it can be just as damaging as not exercising at all.
- Loosen muscles: Apart from classic training, it is important not to go to sleep with tense muscles. Short loosening and stretching exercises before going to bed can help. But we shouldn't break a sweat, it just stimulates the body and prevents fatigue.