Leg cramps and pain of a night time is a reasonably common occurrence, particularly in the older population. Research suggests that between 38 and 50% of those over 55 suffer nocturnal leg cramping, with a significant number more experiencing nocturnal leg pain. At the other end of the life cycle, many adolescents suffer “growing pains” at night. A recent study from the Netherlands (Hallegraef et. al. 2012) found that simple Hamstring and Calf stretches performed each night before bed significantly reduced both the frequency of nocturnal leg cramps and the severity of night time leg pain.
This particular study examined 88 older adults (> 55 years old), however our experience in managing younger people with nocturnal leg cramping/pain suggests the same results can be achieved with younger people too. The exact cause of nocturnal leg cramps is unknown, with a number of possible causes hypothesised: nerve excitability due to electrolyte imbalance, diuretics, steroid use, and muscle and tendon shortening (as a result of either too little or too much physical activity). There has been some research suggesting that taking quinine (e.g. in tonic water) can be moderately effective in reducing nocturnal leg cramping/pain, although it does have side effects. There is really no research to back taking many of the other supplements people try (Magnesium, Vit B, Calcium, Vit E etc.)
The results of the Hallegraef study though were very encouraging. The stretches are easy to do, and there are of course no side effects. So, if night cramps/pain is an issue for you, why not try doing 3x30sec holds of the 2 stretches below:
Obviously if your pain persists or worsens, getting assessed by your local Back In Motion physiotherapist (there may be more significant inflammatory causes for your pain that can be treated) would certainly be worth your while.