A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

When are leg cramps worrisome?

Leg cramps can happen any time you’re running, exercising or simply walking around. Most often, leg cramps will go away by changing your daily habits.

But what happens if your cramps never go away? Your body may be signaling that the pain in your leg isn’t just a small cramp.

Blood flow, oxygen and leg cramps are connected

Woman massaging her calf - When to worry about leg cramps

Cramps come from changes in the flow of blood and supply of oxygen in the blood.

Cramps come from changes in the flow of blood and supply of oxygen in the blood.

“The muscle itself needs oxygen and the proper blood flow,” said Candace Pernsteiner, a physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic. “If you’re using the muscle too much, you’re using up its oxygen supply as well as supply of energy. As a result, you are burning it out. If the muscle is starved for oxygen, then you’ll get a cramp.”

Main causes of cramps include dehydration, muscle overuse and muscle strain or trauma. The blood supply is compromised when you don’t have enough fluids in your muscles.

Cramps also can come from repeating a particular motion for a very long time, such as running. You also can get leg cramps from standing in place for long periods of time.

You can treat smaller cramps

The best way to avoid leg cramps is to stay hydrated. Drink water or sports drinks for electrolytes and cut back on alcohol and caffeine.

“Soft drinks make you urinate your water, so you think you’re getting fluids but you aren’t getting the correct fluids,” Pernsteiner said. “Take in something that will stay in you to keep hydrated. Soda as well as coffee actually dehydrates you by making you use the restroom more.”

Stretch your muscles if you think they are overused or strained. It also helps to use ice or heat to break up the cramp and ease any pain in the legs. Eating a balanced diet of fruits and veggies can help, especially with potassium and magnesium.

More than just a cramp

If you have leg cramps all of the time, it can be more than just overusing the muscles.

“If there’s a cramp that’s brought on that does not seem to be caused by physical activity, it can be a sign of a chronic condition,” Pernsteiner said.

The first chronic condition could be an issue with blood flow, or peripheral artery disease. Plaque builds up in the arteries, which leads to blood not going to the muscles.

The second condition is nerve compression, or the narrowing and pinching of nerves in the spine.

Finally, some medications can cause leg cramping. These medications include diuretics that make you dehydrated and blood pressure and cholesterol drugs.

If you have leg cramps not brought on by physical activity, see your doctor or ask for a referral to physical therapy to learn what may be causing the cramps.

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