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What are Leg Spasms?

By DM Gutierrez
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Leg spasms occur when a muscle in the leg, usually the calf, suddenly tightens involuntarily, causing a sensation sometimes called a charley horse. They can be painful and momentarily debilitating, but usually resolve on their own with little or no treatment. Sometimes spasms can be the result of improper exercise, a dietary deficiency, or dehydration. Cramps and spasms also can be caused by medication side effects or an underlying medical condition, but many have no discernible cause.

Leg spasms can result from the overuse or repetitive use of a muscle, such as while bicycling or doing squat exercises. Drinking too little water during or after exercise can also cause leg cramps, especially when running or jogging on a hot day. A lack of magnesium, potassium, or calcium can also trigger cramps, and medications that deplete potassium levels, such as high blood pressure prescriptions, can cause spasms.

Painful leg cramps and spasms have a variety of medically-related causes as well. For example, spinal stenosis, a compression of the spinal cord, can cause leg spasms due to inadequate nerve conduction. Another spinal condition called sciatica compresses the large sciatic nerve that runs from the spine down the leg, which can cause a charley horse in the calf and cause spasms. Certain neurological disorders, such as Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy, can also cause leg spasms and uncontrollable twitching. Reduced blood flow to the legs, often cause by arteriosclerosis, can cause leg pain while walking. Other medical conditions that can contribute to spasms include anemia, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and hypoglycemia.

Though a physician may prescribe a muscle relaxant if leg spasms are regularly disturbing a person’s sleep, stretching and applying heat and cold are the most frequently recommended treatments for alleviating leg cramps. For example, during a calf spasm, stretching the leg out and pulling the toe toward the head will stretch the cramped muscle and help eliminate the spasm. Massage can also assist the muscle in relaxing the contraction. Applying a heating pad to the affected area, followed by an ice pack, can reduce leg pain as well.

Prevention generally is the key to eliminating leg spasms provoked by exercise. Fitness experts often recommend stretching before exercising to warm up the muscles. It also is recommended to drink plenty of water before, during, and after intense exercise. For spasms due to spinal stenosis or sciatica, walking slightly bent over to relieve the stress on the spinal cord or sciatic nerve may provide some relief. Stretching before going to bed may help prevent leg cramps during sleep.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Sep 24, 2013

@literally45-- Are the spasms in both legs or just one? I used to have spasms in my left leg only and it turned out that I have a pinched nerve in my back.

By stoneMason — On Sep 23, 2013

@literally45-- The cause could be one of three things. Either you are dehydrated, you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency or you are over-exerting yourself.

I know you said you drink plenty of water but maybe you need more. People who exercise and sweat a lot also need to drink electrolyte water sometimes because you are also losing electrolytes through sweat.

The other cause might be a deficiency. I suggest taking a multivitamin supplement daily. Make sure it has B vitamins, vitamin D and magnesium in it. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies usually cause leg spasms at night, but it can also happen during the day.

The last possible cause is over-exertion. You might want to run a shorter distance or rest for a few days in between runs.

By literally45 — On Sep 23, 2013

I go running frequently and during my last two runs, I had leg spasms in the middle of my run. The spasms are very painful and last for a few minutes. It only happens while I'm running and I'm forced to stop.

I eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water so I don't know what might be the cause.

Has anyone else experienced this?

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