Leg cramps, which are involuntary contractions of the muscles of the leg, have multiple causes.  Some are more common than others.

Common Causes of Muscle Cramps:

1. Dehydration– when the amount of water that baths muscle cells is too low (say from working out hard without replacing fluids), the electrolytes in the area are thrown off and can make the muscle contract, sometimes violently, causing extreme spasm and pain (ie Charley horse)

2. Electrolyte Imbalance (not due to dehydration): calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium are the electrolytes that are crucial for muscle contraction.  If these are low, or even high, they can cause cramps.

3. Lactic Acid: when a muscle is vigorously worked, a by-product of metabolism, called lactic acid, can build up and cause muscle cramping.

4. Hormonal Abnormalities: thyroid, estrogens and others.  A common symptom in pregnant women is leg and muscle cramping.  The exact reason is unclear but probably has something to do with a combination of those above (dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and lactic acid build up that are appear during pregnancy).

5. Peripheral artery/vascular disease (PAD/PVD): the telltale symptom here is sharp or crampy leg, thigh or buttock pain with walking, jogging or running.  This is typically due to cholesterol plaques blocking the leg arteries.  It’s similar to heart artery blockages, only in the leg arteries.  Smokers are at high risk for both of these!

6. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): Restless Leg Syndrome causes your legs to feel extremely uncomfortable either at a sitting or lying position. The discomfort can usually be relieved with walking or movement of the legs. The cause of restless leg syndrome is not completely understood.  Some studies suggest that it may be hereditary. But other conditions like iron deficiency and even pregnancy may make RLS worse.  RLS appears to cluster in people who also snore and have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) but the nature of the link between the two is unknown.

What measures can you take to prevent muscle cramps?

Stay hydrated; clear urine is a good way to tell if you’re hydrated

Call your doctor to ask if you should have

*complete history and physical examination

*comprehensive chemistry (for electrolytes, blood sugar and kidney function)

*thyroid blood tests or

*pregnancy test

Stretch before and after workouts

Eat foods rich in potassium (Bananas, Oranges, Apricots, Avocado, Strawberries,                   Potatoes,Tomatoes, Cucumber, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Bell pepper, Eggplant, Squash).

***[Avoid foods that you’re allergic to (obviously) and those that may throw off other dietary goals (in diabetes for example)].

Ask your doctor before liberalizing the saltin your diet, as this could cause an unsafe increase in blood pressure or worsen other conditions, like heart failure, kidney, liver or thyroid disease.