How to Stop Leg Cramps at Night (and Figure Out What's Causing Them)

Cramping calves can keep you awake. Here are some expert-approved ways to sleep better with leg pain at night.

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Picture this: You’re cozy under your covers in a deep state of slumber when, all of a sudden, your calf muscles feel like they’ve tightened into a knot, jolting you awake and sending intense pain zinging up your entire leg. It’s called a nocturnal leg cramp, and up to 60 percent of adults say they’ve experienced it.

The playful name for this type of cramp — a Charley horse — makes it sound like no big deal. But when left unchecked, leg cramps at night can lead to severe insomnia, according to American Family Physician.

What causes leg cramps at night?

Nocturnal leg cramping is just one of the many health issues that can cause aching legs at night. Also on the list?

  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS)  
  • Sciatica 
  • Psoriatic arthritis  
  • Shin splints  
  • Arthritis  
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Leg injuries  
  • Muscle cramps
  • Growing pains

In some cases, such as muscle cramps due to dehydration after intense exercise, leg cramps at night may be temporary. However for chronic conditions, like restless legs syndrome, these causes may create a vicious cycle, where a bad night’s sleep worsens your pain during the day, leading to even worse sleep the next night — and on and on.

If you experience leg pain at night, you don’t have to take this situation lying down — except at bedtime! By finding a better sleeping position and adjusting your bedtime routine and lifestyle, you can alleviate leg pain and restless nights at the same time

How to stop leg pain and leg cramps at night

If you are wondering how to stop leg cramps immediately, try gently stretching the muscle or using a hot and cold compress to encourage your muscles to relax. However, the best method is prevention by incorporating several of the tips below into your bedtime routine.

Person stretching to relax leg muscles and stop leg cramps
Vladimir Stanankovic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

1. Adjust your sleep position to manage leg pain

Your sleeping position matters when it comes to drifting off with leg pain — and sleeping on your stomach probably isn’t the best idea. Even though it’s not directly connected to leg pain, stomach sleeping can compress your spine and make your neck and back hurt, which can lead to other sleep problems.

“The best sleeping position for people with leg pain is on their back with a pillow slightly elevating their knees,” advises Jordan Duncan, chiropractor and owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine, a clinic that specializes in difficult-to-treat musculoskeletal pain conditions. “This allows the hip and knee joints to relax, taking tension off of the lower extremities.”

Rather than slipping a regular pillow beneath your knees, consider investing in a “leg-elevation pillow,” suggests Dr. Febin Melepura, medical director at Sports and Pain Institute of New York.

“It is around 12 inches tall, made up of very rigid foam that enables you to keep your legs raised while sleeping. It prevents the nerves in your legs from compression,” he explains.

Side sleeping can also work, especially if you sleep with your knees slightly bent cradling a body pillow, adds Duncan. The extra support from the body pillow will help your leg muscles stay relaxed and in the proper alignment while you rest.

A final tip: If your leg pain isn’t the same on both sides, keep the leg that hurts more on top to avoid applying extra weight on it during the night

2. Add stretches to your bedtime routine

Stretching both before bed and right after you wake up can make a world of difference in your lower body pain, says Melepura. He recommends the following exercises for leg pain:

Stretching when you’re ready to go to sleep can relax your muscles and help prevent leg pain at night, reducing restless sleep and middle-of-the-night wake ups. And doing it again in the morning can help reduce any tension and stiffness that built up in your body overnight, ultimately easing your pain.

Before incorporating the stretches into your routines, talk with a healthcare professional like a physical therapist about exercises for your leg pain. They can provide personalized recommendations for stretches that help the condition making your legs hurt — and show you how to do them safely.

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3. Soothe sore muscles with a warm bath or massage

Want to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep? Try giving aching muscles in your calves and thighs some self-care.

“Before going to bed, soak in a hot bath of Epsom salts, which are loaded with magnesium. Supplying magnesium to your muscles will help relax them and reduce RLS symptoms,” says Melepura.

A warm bath can also help with leg pain from other issues, like overdoing it at the gym. For an added bonus, infuse the water with a few drops of lavender oil, which has been shown to promote sleep.

Then, get ready for a massage. No need to book an appointment at the spa, though. Simply sit on your bed and rub your legs — or ask someone else to do so! — to encourage blood flow to that area, says Melepura. Check out these self-massage tutorials for the lower legs and upper legs to learn techniques that can loosen up your muscles.

These self-care practices perform double duty as a relaxation method to put your mind — as well as your body — in the right state for sleep.

4. Get exercise during the day

Exercising during the day can be extremely beneficial for people with chronic leg pain. Ample research has shown that physical activity can help reduce the severity of pain, improve physical function, and increase your quality of life. Plus, moderate aerobic exercise (like taking a brisk walk) can help you fall asleep more quickly and give you higher-quality sleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

There’s no single best type of exercise for leg pain. However, low-impact exercises, such as swimming, walking, yoga, biking, and rowing, tend to be gentler on the body, so may be worth a try.

If you’re just getting started, aim for a few minutes of exercise a day and gradually increase the duration and intensity as your body allows. Work your way up to at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily; that’s the amount shown to improve sleep quality.

Other ways to help stop leg pain at night

Person sipping bedtime tea and reading a book to relax before bed
Nathana Parise / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

Wondering what else you can do to sleep better with leg pain? Here are some other tips to try:

  • Avoid inflammatory foods. Limit your intake of sugar, saturated fats, gluten, refined carbohydrates, and other ingredients that can increase inflammation in the body and, as a result, lead to more pain.  
  • Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. By doing so, you can train your body to sleep on schedule. 
  • Don’t lie in bed if you can’t sleep. If you got in bed 20 minutes ago and still can’t sleep, get up and do something mind-numbing (like reading a dull book) until you feel tired. Then, give sleep another try. 
  • Manage stress. Use stress-management techniques, like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, to keep your worries in perspective at bedtime and drift off more easily. 

If you’re regularly experiencing leg pain and having trouble getting sleep, connect with a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Together, you can explore treatment options that get your health back on track.