Can Supplements Actually Help With Leg Cramps?

Muscle cramps are a common occurrence that can affect anyone, with leg cramps, particularly in the calf, being the most prevalent type. While specific conditions are hypothesized to increase the risk of experiencing these cramps, such as dehydration or electrolyte imbalances, their exact cause can vary and may include factors like overuse, poor circulation, or muscle fatigue. In this article, we will explore potential causes, risk factors, and the scientific evidence surrounding the use of vitamins and supplements for managing leg cramps.

What are cramps?

Muscle cramps, also known as charley horses, are involuntary muscle contractions that last seconds or minutes and can be very painful. Essentially, when a muscle goes into spasm, it contracts without control and doesn't relax voluntarily. Despite the discomfort they cause, cramps typically don't result in long-term consequences or harm. During a cramp, a palpable knot may be felt in the affected muscle area.

What causes cramps?

Although there has been a wide array of research on the subject, there is still no definitive answer as to why muscle cramps happen. It is hypothesized that stress on the neuromuscular system may be one of the main reasons why frequent cramping occurs in some people.

The conditions that are also proposed to increase the risk of having cramps may include:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte/mineral imbalance
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Excessive muscular straining
  • Medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease)
  • Neurological disorders
  • Pregnancy
  • Use of certain drugs (e.g., clonazepam, sertraline, zolpidem, etc.)

Since it's difficult to pinpoint any particular reason for muscle cramps, they are often called idiopathic (no identifiable cause). Idiopathic muscle cramps can happen in any muscular group but are more frequent in the lower extremities (legs and feet) and are more evident at night.

In this regard, we can make some remarks about the more frequent types of cramps and their unique considerations.

Leg cramps

Leg cramps are the most common form of muscle cramps, with around 80% of cases involving the calf.

Although there is no scientific explanation for why leg cramps happen, it is believed that some people may have a lower muscular activation threshold, which can trigger frequent leg cramps.

Leg cramps can happen at any time of the day or night and may be triggered by any of the causes listed above (exercise, medical conditions, pregnancy, etc.) or can be idiopathic.

Night cramps

Cramps that happen at night are also known as nocturnal leg cramps (NLCs) or sleep-related leg cramps.

If they happen frequently, night cramps can affect a person's quality of life since their sleep cycle gets suddenly — and painfully — interrupted, forcing them to wake up in the middle of the night to deal with the muscle spams and try to find some kind of relief.

Night cramps can affect anyone but are more frequent in people over 60 years of age, and affect around 37% of this population in the U.S. alone. Given these statistics, night cramps are hypothesized to happen due to neuromuscular dysfunction or deterioration that normally happens as people age.

Some researchers also believe that night cramps are related to a lack of stretching in the tendons and muscles of the legs during the normal activities of day-to-day life. Likewise, night cramps may also happen due to the prolonged lack of movement in the muscles of the legs and feet, along with the natural shortening of calf muscles that occurs at night while sleeping.

Cramps during exercise

Lack of movement and exercise can lead to muscle cramps. However, excessive exercise or strenuous physical activities may also cause the same result due to muscle fatigue.

Exercise-related muscle cramps are very common, but they happen more frequently in athletes who train in elevated environmental heat conditions. These cramps can occur during or after physical activity and are believed to be related to large losses of sweat and electrolytes during strenuous physical exercises.

Hand and foot cramps

Although less common than leg cramps, hand and foot cramps may also happen. The most common form is called 'writer cramp,' which affects the hand used for writing or typing.

These cramps are believed to happen due to muscle fatigue and are more frequent in people between 30 and 50 years of age.

Cramps during pregnancy

Since the early stages of pregnancy, the body starts to experience metabolic and hormonal changes that can lead to a higher risk of muscle cramps. Particularly during the third trimester, several factors are believed to further contribute to an increased risk of having muscle cramps. These include:

  • Weight gain
  • Muscle strain, especially of the legs
  • Impaired range of movement
  • Compression of nerves and blood vessels due to increased uterine volume

Apart from causing discomfort and pain, muscle cramps during pregnancy do not pose any risk for the mother or fetus.

Supplements and vitamins commonly used to treat leg cramps

Currently, there is not a single active compound has been proven to be effective and safe to provide instant relief for leg cramps or prevent them from happening. Therefore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any medications for leg cramps.

However, not all hope is lost, since some studies have shown promising results regarding the use of some vitamins and supplements to help treat leg cramps.

Furthermore, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) issued a few recommendations to treat and prevent muscle cramps.

So, based on the AAN recommendations and existing research data, the most common drugs, vitamins, and supplements that may help alleviate muscle cramps include:

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that is important for several of the body’s functions, including blood glucose (sugar) regulation, blood pressure regulation, bone health, and muscle and nerve function, among others.

Some people believe a magnesium supplement can help alleviate their leg cramps and pain. However, after multiple studies, the effectiveness of magnesium in treating and preventing leg cramps remains controversial.

Vitamin B complex

Vitamins from the B complex play an important role in the body as they are essential to perform several cellular functions, including the transmission of nerve signals, releasing energy from carbohydrates and fats, etc.

Vitamin B complex includes:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

Some studies have shown that a supplement of vitamin B complex may be effective in treating muscle cramps, especially in people who lack one or more of these vitamins.

Quinine

Quinine is a drug used to treat malaria and the active ingredient in extracts of cinchona. For many years, quinine was also used traditionally to treat frequent muscle cramps, and, according to anecdotal evidence, shown promising benefits.

However, a few years ago, the FDA and the American Academy of Neurology stated that quinine was related to rare but serious side effects, including toxicity and even death; therefore, they could no longer recommend the routine use of this compound to treat muscle cramps.

Nevertheless, quinine may still be considered to be used – under strict medical supervision – to help people who suffer from disabling muscle cramps due to neuromuscular diseases. In this case, the physician must consider whether its benefits are greater than its disadvantages.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is necessary for the blood to clot properly, helping the wounds to heal.

A study conducted recently found that vitamin K2 supplementation may help decrease the severity, duration, and frequency of muscle cramps, and it is safe in people who go through hemodialysis.

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that is necessary for the body to carry out several functions, like cell growth, tissue repair, breakdown of carbohydrates, and supporting the immune system.

Some studies have shown the efficacy of zinc in treating and preventing muscle cramps in people with cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).

Medications

Out of the several drugs and supplements that have been tested throughout the years, one calcium-channel blocker known as diltiazem hydrochloride has shown some potential.

However, most studies have been inconclusive and the low quality of evidence prevents scientists from recommending a specific drug that can be used to treat or prevent leg cramps.

Ways how you can reduce leg cramps

Although there is not an infallible method to reduce the intensity of leg cramps, some things that can help alleviate the symptoms include:

  • Deep tissue massage
  • Muscle stretching
  • Mild exercise before bed, to help with night cramps

When a leg cramp happens, you can use your hands and fingers to massage on the knot.

Flexing your toes towards you and gently pulling them can also help relieve the symptoms.

Leg cramp prevention

Leg cramps cannot be fully prevented. However, some things that can help decrease their frequency include:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Having a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables
  • Sleeping well
  • Keeping a good posture
  • Stretching before and after physical activity

If you are suffering from frequent leg cramps and can’t pinpoint the probable cause, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional. In some cases, muscle cramps may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed.

FAQ

Key takeaways:


Leave a reply

Your email will not be published. All fields are required.