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What Works for Leg Cramps?

Comments (16)

A reader of our Health After 50 newsletter asks, "I suffer from frequent leg cramps and I’ve heard that quinine can help. Should I consider taking it?" Here’s what Hopkins recommends.

Muscle cramps are a major problem for people with neurological illnesses such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, but muscle cramps also frequently strike otherwise healthy older adults. In fact, it’s estimated that upwards of 50 percent of people older than 65 experience recurring idiopathic (without a known cause) muscle cramps. Quinine is often prescribed off-label for the treatment of muscle cramps.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly recommends that people only take quinine for its indicated use -- to treat malaria. Qualaquin, the prescription form of quinine, has been associated with a number of potentially deadly side effects. Between 2005 and 2008, the FDA received 38 reports of quinine-related incidents to its Adverse Event Reporting System.

This may not seem like a lot, but the majority of cases were serious. Many of the people involved developed a condition called thrombocytopenia -- their blood platelets dropped to alarmingly low levels, causing excessive bleeding. Fourteen people had a blood platelet count below 5,000 microliters (normal is between 150,000 and 450,000); five died. A number of other adverse events also were reported, including: GI symptoms, hearing loss, rash, electrolyte imbalance, and drug interactions.

In addition, quinine is only mildly effective at stopping muscle cramps or reducing their severity, according to a recent assessment by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). Other treatments that also fared poorly in the AAN's analysis include the antiseizure drug gabapentin (Neurontin), magnesium, and basic muscle stretching.

What might work for leg cramps? A host of potential but yet-to-be-proven candidates include muscle relaxers, calcium channel blockers, and even the numbing agent lidocaine. For now, the AAN recommends asking your doctor about B-complex vitamins, diazepam (Valium), or the antiseizure drug naftidrofuryl (Dusodril).

Posted in Healthy Living on October 20, 2010

Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Health After 50 Disclaimer

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I don't know about others that have leg cramps but when I get them they certainly could not be helped with any medication for pain other than perhaps a shot of morphine.

A lower calf cramp is a nothing that can't be eliminated by standing and stretching. An upper leg cramp front or back (and particularly the back thigh) is altogether another matter. It is so severe that I am close to passing out.

I keep a deep massager near by (actually several in different places in the house) so that when I get such a cramp I have some means of diminishing it. This is the only partial solution I have found and suggest it for others.

Posted by: artkoff | October 23, 2010 3:33 PM

Leg cramps can often be remedied by a magnesium supplement. I don't know why, but almost every time I drink wine, especially red wine, I get leg and/or foot cramps. Magnesium and potassium takes care of it within a few minutes.

Posted by: Anna78132 | October 23, 2010 6:07 PM

I most often get leg cramps when I don't drink enough water during the day. So I now make the effort and it has paid off.

Posted by: Kitty | October 23, 2010 7:11 PM

Minerals! If I don't take my minerals every day, I get terrible leg cramps, toe cramps. Magnesium and potassium seems to be the best solution. I buy Mega MultiMineral by Solaray. I have used liquid minerals, too, basically sea water. It DOES WORK!!! Hope this helps.


Posted by: moondance77 | October 24, 2010 9:24 AM

What works for me is Vitamin E 400iud at bed time or a acupuncture trick......... squeeze the skin above the lip under the nose together and hold till the pain ends -- good for those 3am Charley Horses Good Luck!

Posted by: warpony | October 24, 2010 10:03 AM

What works for me is: An old acupuncture trick........... Squeeze the skin together under the nose and hold it till the pain ends...good for those Charley Horses at 3am and you don't have to get up! Good luck! It ain't NO fun gettin' Old

Posted by: | October 24, 2010 10:08 AM

It may not work for everyone, but the occasional high dosage of vitamin B1 works for me.

Posted by: allmymarbles | October 24, 2010 1:14 PM

Surprised to read that Gabapentin isn't recommended. I have neuropathy in the lower right leg, foot, and toes (due to chemo), and often get painful leg cramps. My neurologist recommend gabapentin, which has helped some. I notice when I forget to take it some evenings, my toes hurt so bad, and the cramps are stronger and more painful. Warpony, you were soooo right--it ain't no fun getting' old - especially when there are multiple health issues to deal with!

Posted by: wishfulthinking | October 25, 2010 12:38 PM

For me, 100mg of B1 (over and above whatever vitamins I am taking) works like a charm. The cramp usually wakes me, so I open the capsule and dump the powder in my mouth for a quick effect. so I can get back to sleep.

Posted by: | October 25, 2010 1:45 PM

For what it't worth, when I have leg or foot cramps, I have found that drinking a small drink of dill pickle juice does the trick. It was recommended to me by someone else and it works like a charm. I have no idea what is in the pickle juice that helps, and would like to know, if anyone can tell me.

Posted by: mrslee | October 28, 2010 2:59 AM

Since I don't like to take many chemichals, I've tried having a banana everyday for cramps. I've also heard from an old lady who takes a tonic water (without gin!) every day and she says it works like a charm! Of course it does not work inmediately, but after a while. Thanks to warpony for the tip, I'll try it.

Posted by: happy1 | November 1, 2010 2:03 PM

Looking at the different responses it would appear that muscle cramps can have a variety of causes.

Posted by: | November 1, 2010 4:51 PM


Tonic water has a small amount of quinine in it, so drinking it regularly would be a big help for leg and foot cramps.

Posted by: mrslee | November 1, 2010 11:06 PM

So far I have found nothing to completely relieve my horrible leg and foot cramps. I put a bar of Dove soap in my bed and it seems to have lessened the frequency and severity. It doesn't matter if you even take it out of the box (I didn't).

Posted by: hereandnow | December 26, 2010 10:49 AM

You may need to try several different ways to stop a muscle cramp before you find what works best for you. Here are some things you can try:

Stretch and massage the muscle. Take a warm shower or bath to relax the muscle. A heating pad placed on the muscle can also help. Try using an ice or cold pack. Always keep a cloth between your skin and the ice pack. Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label. If your doctor prescribes medicines for muscle cramps, take them exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine. Drink plenty of fluids. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, will often help leg cramps.

Posted by: allendbrook | September 6, 2012 3:57 AM

Dear Allmymarbles-you are putting potassium in your system when you drink pickle juice. It is the vinegar that has potassium. But if your potassium is high your salt is low and vice versa, so it is a delicate balance because both are vital and it is dangerous to self-medicate. Probably deriving your minerals from foods as you do will not be harmful as buying pills and popping them to try to stop leg cramps. I have leg cramps when I drink red wine. Many others do and we wonder what is wrong? But my biggest clue came from the two couples who went to dinner and all drank the same wine and all four had leg cramps during the night. That tells me it was probably the wine's preservatives rather than 4 people all low on the same mineral. I could not possibly drink more water daily so I know I am not dehydrated. Trying to second guess our minerals on a daily basis is impossible so sticking to a well-rounded diet with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies should keep our bodies nourished. I just stay away from wine to stop my leg cramps, but when I don't, I have not found any of these remedies to be helpful so far. Quinine did work for me and I don't know if Q is to blame, but my ears ring constantly these days. 70% of those over 60 have leg cramps? My gosh and here, none of us talk about it during the day (except on the internet) to those around us. We are a stoic group!

Posted by: Twotam | December 6, 2012 3:09 PM

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