What Causes Leg Cramps at Night

Leg cramps at night are common.

And it's important to make a distinction between leg cramps causes and other causes of leg pain at night.


Because there are several conditions that can cause leg pain at night:

  • fibromyalgia
  • sciatica
  • arthritis
  • night leg cramps
  • varicose veins
  • Use of statins for lowering cholesterol
  • lower extremity arterial disease (atherosclerosis).

So what causes leg cramps at night?

The cramp, or charley horse, is due to the muscle contracting (shortening and tightening) in a sudden and violent way. These nocturnal leg cramps usually occur in the calf muscle. But foot and leg cramps do happen at night also. Cramps in the thighs are less common.

One main reason for the pain is because blood flow to the muscle is restricted. Waste products also build up within the muscle tissue.

Here are nine conditions that may cause muscles to contract

The underlying causes of leg cramps are unknown. However, here are nine possible suspects:

  1. Dehydration. Not staying hydrated with enough water during the day may be one of the big causes of leg cramps at night. This is most likely due to fluid imbalances of electrolytes (mainly sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium).

  2. Overuse of the muscles, perhaps from exercising, gardening or other physical activities.

  3. Night leg cramps during pregnancy affect about 30% of women. In the next article, I have a big caution regarding relief for leg muscle cramps in pregnancy.  (You can see a link to that article at the bottom of this page.)

  4. Concrete. This sounds a little far fetched to me, but I've read that standing on concrete for long periods of time can lead to leg pain at night. When I was 17, I went to work in a steel factory. It was tough, sweaty, physical labor. We all stood on concrete for eight hours a day, day after day, working our tails off. I never remember any of the men complaining about leg cramps, but then again, these guys were tough dudes. Complaining was for cry babies.

  5. Prolonged standing. Maybe concrete isn't the real culprit and this is. There's a good study that was published in August 2011. It shows that prolonged standing at work is a risk factor for both varicose veins and nocturnal leg cramps. If you have a job that keeps you standing, try to find time and ways to sit down when you can. Break time may be your only opportunity.

  6. Diabetes. Some leg cramps at night may indeed be a result of diabetes. However, please note that just because you have occasional leg pain at night from cramps does not mean you have diabetes.

    Click here for more information about a natural approach to balancing insulin and glucose levels (link opens in a new window).

  7. Shoes that don't fit properly may be what causes leg cramps for some adults and children. In fact, when it comes to what causes leg cramps in women, high heel shoes are something to consider.

  8. Kidney dialysis can be a cause of leg cramps at night.

  9. Medications, including diuretics for high blood pressure, oral contraceptives, and statins.

Important tip if you're taking statins for cholesterol

One of the side effects of taking statins is muscle aches in the legs. Technically, these are not leg cramps.

However, if you take statins, you should be aware that studies show that statin use lowers levels of the nutrient Coenzyme Q10 (abbreviated as CoQ10). A study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed that statins reduce CoQ10 levels by up to 40%!

This is very important because lower levels of CoQ10 may create pain or cramps in the leg muscles. Like a lot of things in medicine, the studies are conflicting on this point.

I don’t take statins. However, I occasionally like to take CoQ10 for a heart boost.

I’ve been reading about this nutrient for years. And reading The Coenzyme Q10 Phenomenon by clinical cardiologist Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D. several years ago really peaked my interest.

This book, although several years old, is an excellent overview of why CoQ10 is so important for many health conditions, especially heart health.

I got my copy from Amazon. If you’re interested, you can read about it here.

Supplementing with a dose of 50 mg twice daily of CoQ10 for 30 days may be beneficial to you if you are having muscle pain from statins. Certainly something to discuss with your doctor.

Below I’ve provided a link in reference #5 you can click on to see a good study on taking CoQ10 for muscle pain.

The point is, if you do take statins, you really need to read up on the statin and CoQ10 connection. Going to pubmed.com can also give you medical information on this topic.

Here’s something else to be aware of: There are a few studies showing that 100 mg of CoQ10 taken in the evening may cause insomnia. That’s why I always take my CoQ10 in the morning after breakfast. CoQ10 should always be taken with meals.

Here is the CoQ10 I like to take because I’ve been a vegetarian for forty years. There are all kinds of CoQ10 products on Amazon. Poke around Amazon and find one you like.

Another thing to keep in mind: Some studies show that CoQ10 can lower blood pressure a little bit. So it’s a good idea to monitor your blood pressure if you’re taking blood pressure medications.

Here's what I suggest for shopping at Amazon.com

Amazon.com has a wide variety of products for leg cramps. Some are creams, some are sprays, there are magnesium supplements, and also homeopathic pills.

In my article about homeopathic sleep aids, I wrote about my skepticism of homeopathy. Yet, surprisingly, many people find relief with this form of treatment.

You may even want to try compression socks.

Because who am I to say what might work for you?

I do know leg cramps hurt like heck so you may want to give the items below a try. Or just type leg cramps into the search box and see what comes up.

I do hope that helps you.

Three final things to note

  1. Don't confuse leg cramps at night with restless legs syndrome; they are separate conditions. (See my articles below on restless leg syndrome.)

  2. Night leg cramps while sleeping are when they often occur. If you frequently have severe leg cramps, either during the day or at night, and nothing seems to ease the leg pain, this would be something to take up with your doctor.

  3. If you suffer from insomnia and sleepless nights, whether because of leg muscle cramps, joint pain, or any other reason, this may be the best natural sleep aid you'll ever try. (Link opens a new browser window.) I like the science behind it.

    I also like it because not only can adults take it, but children 12 years and older can too. That makes it an excellent natural sleep supplement for teenagers.

I hate it when I get leg cramps at night in my legs or feet. So I hope the other articles I wrote below are helpful to you.

Here is my detailed series of articles on leg cramps. Plus, information on restless legs syndrome.

Nocturnal Leg Cramps: Can They Be Prevented?

Leg Pain at Night: 16 Lower Leg Cramps Treatment Options

Night Leg Cramps Treatments: 6 More Options

Stop Leg Cramps at Night! My Final Five Leg Cramp Relief Options

What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

19 Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms

Return to Sleep Disorders Home Page

References for What Causes Leg Cramps at Night

  1. Evidence of plasma CoQ10-lowering effect by HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. 40% reduction in CoQ10 levels. J Clin Pharmacol. 1993 Mar;33(3):226-9.

  2. Leg cramps. Clinical Evidence 2009;03:1113.

  3. Sleep: The Complete Guide to Sleep Disorders and a Better Night's Sleep. J. Paul Caldwell, MD

  4. Relationship between prolonged standing and symptoms of varicose veins and nocturnal leg cramps among women and men. Ergonomics. 2011 Aug 17.

  5. Coenzyme Q10 Supplementation Decreases Statin-Related Mild-to-Moderate Muscle Symptoms: A Randomized Clinical Study. Med Sci Monit. 2014; 20: 2183–2188.

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