Many of us are familiar with the discomfort of muscle cramps as our limbs painfully contract. Whether you’re experiencing leg cramps while running or nocturnal leg cramps from a day of prolonged standing, muscle cramps are a regular occurrence, affecting approximately 60% of adults from time to time.
The frequency of these spasms increases with age, and muscle spasms in elderly patients are a common struggle. Understanding the reasons and solutions for muscle cramping is one of the first steps in assisting elderly patients.
Let’s explore the reason that older people experience muscle spasms and how to treat leg cramps.
What are muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms, also known as muscle cramps, are the result of the muscles contracting and tightening in an involuntary and unpredictable way. In many instances, muscle cramps are painful and the need for relief can be intense.
The spastic muscle may be hard to touch and can sometimes appear visibly distorted. In other instances, the muscle may twitch. Even though the spasm can be painful and temporarily affect the use of the muscle, muscle cramps are generally harmless.
It’s common for muscles to contract and spasm during strenuous exercise. Cramp frequency can increase with age, often without the presence of strain or exercise. As an elderly person, relieving involuntary contractions can be particularly challenging as mobility can be limited. Pregnant women also experience a higher rate of muscle spasms due to the extra weight and change in blood circulation.
Symptoms of muscle spasm
Calf cramps (also known as “charley horses”) and spasms in the extremities are the most common types of cramps. In most instances, the cramp is sharp and sudden, meaning that there are no cramp symptoms leading up to the spasm.
Besides the sudden, sharp, intense pain, you may also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath the skin as the muscles contract and tighten.
Sometimes, leg cramps may occur due to underlying medical conditions. The older that a person gets, the more diverse the causes could be, including neurological health conditions. Symptoms of a greater concern could include the following;
- Back, neck or head pain
- Muscle fatigue and weakness
- Numb skin
- Poor coordination
- Slow movements
- Double vision
- Trouble sleeping
Causes and risk factors of muscle cramps
Cramps are commonly associated with strenuous exercise when the muscles are overused, dehydrated and put under strain. Holding a muscle in a specific position for a long period of time can also cause a muscle cramp.
Underlying medical conditions can also contribute to muscle cramps, such as the following common causes;
Inadequate blood supply
Adequate blood circulation is necessary to move oxygen around the body and support optimal functioning. When arteries narrow, the transportation of oxygen is restricted, especially toward the extremities, and cramps occur as a result. Inadequate blood supply is one of the most common causes of cramps among athletes.
The compression of nerves in the spine can produce pain similar to muscle cramps (which tends to worsen with movement). The lower back and legs are the regions most impacted by a pinched nerve. Walking in a flexed position may improve nerve dysfunction (or at least delay the onset of symptoms).
Depletion of minerals
Low mineral content in the bloodstream can increase the chance of cramps. For example, you may crave salt after intense physical exertion which is a sign that your body has experienced a loss of minerals. In particular, the lack of potassium, calcium and magnesium can lead to cramps.
The depletion of minerals can be the result of various causes, such as malnutrition and dependency on diuretic medication. Improving your diet and taking supplements can help replenish the body’s needs.
Nocturnal cramps, in particular, are often the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Nocturnal leg muscle cramps can occur when there is limited activity during the day, causing the muscles to shorten. A little bit of movement each day can make a big difference! Living an active lifestyle can also assist with other conditions. For example, exercise can help manage diabetes.
Nocturnal leg cramps can also be triggered by muscle overexertion, improper sitting positions, prolonged standing, shortening of the tendons and abnormal nerve activity.
Treatments for muscle spasms
Are you wondering how to treat nocturnal leg cramps or uncomfortable spasms? Although leg cramps are uncomfortable, they are fairly easy to treat. Whether you’re struggling with cramps in your thigh muscles, calves or feet, consider the following effective treatment for muscle spasms, from the comfort of your own home.
- Rub the affected muscle in a massaging manner
- Stretch the cramped muscle or flex your foot
- Walk on your heels to when calf muscles cramp to relieve calf cramps
- Apply heat to soothe the tight muscles
In some instances, medication may be required to prevent the onset of muscle spasms. A professional doctor may recommend a muscle relaxant, a calcium-channel blocker, or mineral supplements.
Prevention for muscle spasms
Did you know that 75% of reported leg cramps happen at night? There are various ways to prevent nocturnal leg cramps, especially before going to bed.
- Drink plenty of fluids to ensure normal muscle function
- Stretch your legs before climbing into bed
- Prioritise light exercise on a daily basis
- Avoid heavy bedding
- Invest in supportive footwear
- Adjust your sleeping position to be relaxed
Try these methods out and see if it helps to prevent leg cramps.
When to see a doctor
While muscle spasms are uncomfortable and frustrating, they usually disappear on their own and the severity doesn’t usually demand medical care.
However, there are a few instances when a visit to the doctor may be necessary, such as the following.
- Muscle spasms cause unbearable discomfort and severe pain
- Spasms occur in conjunction with leg swelling, redness and skin changes
- Muscle fatigue and weakness occurs
- Cramp frequency increases
- Self-care fails to reduce the muscle spasms (and their discomfort)
- There is no obvious cause for the cramp
Muscle spasms, especially nocturnal night cramps, can be the first sign of other conditions, such as the following.
- Structural issues such as flat feet or spinal stenosis
- Neurological and neurodegenerative disorders
- Musculoskeletal disorders
- Liver, kidney and thyroid conditions
- Metabolic disorders (such as diabetes)
- Cardiovascular conditions (or vascular disease)
An expert doctor will be able to assist with treating muscle cramps while conducting a risk assessment for more serious conditions.
It’s important to consult an expert rather than self-medicating at the risk of causing more damage. For example, quinine sulphate was previously recommended to help with leg cramps. However, there has been an emergence of potentially life-threatening quinine treatment side effects such as arrhythmias and thrombocytopenia.
What vitamins can help with muscle spasms
There is no specific vitamin that completely eradicates the risk of muscle cramping, but experts do recommend a daily dose of vitamin B12 complex.
Ensuring that the body receives enough vitamins and minerals, specifically zinc, vitamin D, magnesium and potassium is also important.
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This article offers general information only and is not intended as medical or other professional advice. A healthcare provider should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgement of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Mednow or its affiliates.Get Started