Calf Cramps and Restless Legs

Last year, a former high school classmate told me that he often has calf cramps at night. I had recently told him about my restless legs. Sharing my story prompted him to tell me about his nocturnal muscle cramps.

I remember wondering back then whether calf cramps are a variant of RLS. Later I read with other fellow sufferers that they also sometimes suffered from it. I concluded that restless legs and nightly muscle cramps may be related, but they could also be two separate things. In this blog I will go into this topic a little further.

I deal with the following questions:

  1. What are calf cramps and what are the causes?
  2. Are calf cramps the same as restless legs?

What are calf cramps and what are the causes

In calf cramps, the calf muscles contract suddenly and in a painful way. This can take a few seconds or a few minutes. The contraction of the muscles produces a sharp pain. Cramps in the calves mainly occur in the evening and at night when the body is at rest. The muscle cramp also occurs in feet or toes. During the cramp, there is sometimes visible swelling and hardening of the muscle.

About 40-60% of the population sometimes suffers from nightly muscle cramps. About 2% have it weekly or even daily. Women are more likely to have calf cramps or feet cramps than men. It also occurs regularly during pregnancy. Older people more often have muscle cramps than young people.

As with restless legs, leg cramps have a primary and a secondary form. If you speak of primary cramps then the cramps stands alone and does not arise from anything else. It is also called idiopathic. This means that the cause is unknown. Most cases of calf or foot cramps involve the primary form. Leg cramps may be hereditary, but so far there is no scientific evidence for this.

In the secondary form, the complaints arise from something else. Examples of secondary causes are:

  • Certain medications with cramps as a side effect
  • Dehydration
  • Varicose veins
  • Thyroid problems
  • Renal impairment
  • Overuse of muscles
  • Vascular and nerve problems
  • Pregnancy
  • Alcoholism

Are calf cramps the same as RLS

Calf cramps and restless legs are not the same. A striking difference is that with cramps there is a sharp pain due to contractions of the muscles. With RLS there is a discomfort in the calves, but usually no pain. Leg cramps are also not the same as PLMD. This condition often accompanies restless legs. PLMD involves jerking movements of the legs that repeat themselves (painlessly) many times.

There are therefore other things that help with calf cramps than with RLS. Making sure you drink enough water is an example of this. Also pay attention to a healthy diet with sufficient calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Do not walk in high heels and choose well-fitting footwear. It also seems to help to place your feet higher than the head while sleeping so that less blood flows to the legs.

Taking extra magnesium may be useful for both conditions. In the case of calf cramps, this applies especially to pregnant women. Sometimes an additional vitamin B12 supplement helps. The muscle relaxant quinine is a possibility if other measures do not help or do not help enough. Because of the side effects, ask your doctor for advice before purchasing this medicine.

2 thoughts on “Calf Cramps and Restless Legs”

  1. Hi Sylvia. Very interesting, all this. Thank you. I thought I’d mention that I was once told by a yoga teacher who is also a certified naturopath that cramping of the calf muscle can be caused by a diabetic connection, or is a sign of oncoming diabetes. I don’t remember clearly because it was quite a few years ago.

    • Thank you for your comment, Scott. Yes, calf cramps can be caused by diabetes. It is a form of neuropathy that may evolve from diabetes. The nerve damage of neuropathy often results in calf cramps.

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