Leg Cramps- The Holistic Way

Leg cramps are extremely common – most of us will experience them at some time in our life.

I am going to discuss some ways of helping with leg cramps, both medical and holistic. As a GP, patients come to me with distressing leg cramps every week. Fortunately there is something we can do to help, in most cases.

What are Leg cramps?

Leg cramps are pains due to muscle spasm in the muscles of the leg, usually the calf. They can occur especially if the muscle is already partly contracted, and you move in bed to contract them further. They are commoner at night.

Leg cramps are commoner as you get older, in people with an under-active thyroid gland, and in those with peripheral vascular disease, when the arteries of the legs are partially blocked.

Most cases do not have a detectable cause. Occasionally they may be caused by medication, such as diuretics, lithium, cimetidine and asthma medication.

Other causes of leg cramps include excess muscle use during the day, dehydration, low sodium levels, pregnancy, and renal dialysis. They are commonly found after long runs such as marathons.

As leg cramps tend to settle within 10 minutes, pain killers are often not needed, although they can be effective. The most effective medicine to prevent leg cramps is quinine, which should be taken every night for at least 4 weeks to observe the effect. It should be avoided in high doses in pregnancy (unless being used to treat malaria, when the benefits outweigh the risks).

Other methods include exercises to stretch the muscles at the back of the leg (by bringing your toes up towards the knees, or leaning forward  towards a wall). This can be done during an attack as well as regularly to reduce the likelihood of an attack. It may help to eat sugary or salty foods before activity, or to raise the bed head slightly.

Quinine is present in bitter lemon and tonic water, and I have had cases (e.g. in pregnancy) where drinking some of this every night was sufficient to hold the cramps at bay.

Massage during an episode can help. Sweet marjoram oil in a carrier oil may help with the massage. Having a bath with lavender oil or nutmeg may help, while a compress of common thyme or purslane may ease the pain. The scientific evidence for these approaches is poor.

I hope that this helps with this common problem. Quinine tablets are, however, useful and effective, and are safe except in overdose, so if you have ongoing problems do see your doctor!

Please see the excellent patient.co.uk leaflet website for a good leaflet:


The content of our website is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor relating to any medical condition.


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