What are they?

 Nocturnal leg cramps occur where the muscles in the leg tense and seize up involuntarily. Though they typically last no longer than ten minutes, they can be extremely painful, and if they occur on a regular basis can cause extreme discomfort and insomnia. 

They typically affect the calf muscles, though can also occur in the thigh muscles and feet, and are more common amongst older adults, particularly women, affecting the majority of older Americans at least on occasion.

What causes them?

In most cases of nocturnal leg cramps, the exact cause is unknown, and research suggests there is a myriad of possible factors that cause or worsen symptoms.

Some experts believe they may be related to the position of the legs and feet while sleeping (source) while research suggests that those who spent prolonged periods of time standing, were more susceptible (source) as were those who lived a sedentary lifestyle. (source)

Medical conditions

In some cases, muscle cramps may be a sign of an underlying health condition such as:

  • Spinal nerve compression – Caused by any condition that pressures your spinal cord, which can lead to a variety of symptoms including nocturnal leg muscle cramps (source)
  • Type 2 Diabetes- muscle cramps are common amongst those with diabetes and could be caused by Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage caused by high glucose levels in the blood) or Nephropathy (deterioration of kidney function) (source)
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) – Hypothyroidism is where your thyroid does not produce enough hormones and can have a variety of symptoms including muscle weakness, spasms, and cramps in various muscles. (source)
  • Parkinsons disease – Nocturnal muscle cramps affect a large proportion of people with Parkinson’s disease and are thought to be related. (source)
  • Alcoholism – Alcoholism can cause a number of muscle issues and studies have found it is linked to nocturnal leg cramps (source)

Mineral and Vitamin deficiencies

Although the evidence is not conclusive, there is evidence to suggests that nocturnal leg cramps may also be linked to deficiencies in certain key minerals and vitamins, including:

 Magnesium –(source)

Potassium – (source)

Vitamin B – (source)

Vitamin D – (source)

How to treat them?


Increasing your intake of foods that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants will help combat mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and may help ease or even prevent the symptoms of nocturnal leg cramps. The following foods are high in key minerals and vitamins:

  • Avocados
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Papayas
  • Salmon
  • Legumes
  • Bone broth


 Although many people will be able to combat vitamin or mineral deficiencies through a change of diet, for some (particularly older people) supplements may also be required.

 Magnesium deficiency is particularly common and research suggests Magnesium supplements may be effective in helping to reduce and ease symptoms of Nocturnal leg cramps. (source)


Stretching regularly is a great way to increase flexibility, and strength in your muscles as well as improving circulation, and has been linked with a reduction in the symptoms of nocturnal leg cramps. (source) (source)


Massaging the affected muscle increases blood circulation and relaxing the muscles, which can help prevent or ease symptoms of nocturnal leg cramps.

Heat Pads

 Heating pads are commonly used as a way to relieve pain in the muscles or joints, and there is evidence to suggest that they may be effective at easing the symptoms of nocturnal leg cramps.

 Poor circulation may be linked with cramps, and heat pads work by opening up the blood vessels which allows the blood and oxygen to flow more easily to the affected areas.