Leg Cramps

Leg cramps or spasms are a painful tightening of the muscles in the leg. Staying in bed for long periods of time sometimes can cause leg or foot cramps. Dehydration, certain drugs, overuse, and brain or nerve diseases can also cause cramps. Other causes of cramping are pressure on the calf muscles or on the back of the knee, too much phosphorus, too little calcium, low blood sugar, or too little potassium in the body. All of these are imbalances in blood chemistry.

What to look for

  • Sudden pain or discomfort in a leg or foot and a tight or stiff muscle
  • Trouble moving the foot, or pain when moving the foot or leg

What the patient can do

  • Keep warm, and change position often.
  • If you are bed-bound, use a bed cradle to protect the legs and feet from the weight of the blankets. A bed cradle is a support at the end of the bed that holds the sheets and blankets up off the legs and feet.
  • Exercise your legs in bed by bending and straightening them 10 times twice a day or as many times as you can. A family member can move your legs for you if you can’t.
  • Gently stretching the muscles before lying down may help prevent cramping.
  • Tell your cancer team about the cramps. They may be able to give you medicine to help prevent or reduce them.
  • Apply heat to legs when they cramp, if it’s OK with your cancer team. Ask about what kind of heat to use and how long you should use it.
  • Massage the leg, if it’s OK with your cancer team.
  • When you have a cramp, contract the opposite muscle group. Sit up or stand up to stretch the tight muscle as much as you can without hurting it. For example, for a calf muscle cramp, try pointing the toes upward toward the knees, or walk around.
  • Follow your cancer team’s instructions for correcting dehydration, or imbalances in calcium, potassium, or phosphorus.

What caregivers can do

  • Help the patient stretch the tight muscle if they can’t.
  • Use ice or a cold washcloth to gently rub the cramped muscle.
  • If medicines are prescribed to prevent cramping, watch for dizziness or stumbling.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has cramping that’s not relieved by heat, massage, or by stretching the cramped muscle (as described above)
  • Has cramping that lasts for more than 6 to 8 hours
  • Has a cramped leg that becomes red, swollen, or hot

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Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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