Is magnesium the answer for reducing nighttime leg cramps?

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It’s never a welcomed way to wake up during the middle of the night with painful leg cramps. These excruciating involuntary muscle contractions causing a palpable knot in the muscle can come on without warning and for some, may occur several times a week.  An over-the-counter supplement of magnesium is one method many people have tried to bring relief but studies reviewing the effectiveness of these supplements have been inconclusive.

Study on supplemental magnesium and nocturnal leg cramps

One study out of Israel and published in JAMA Internal Medicine evaluated a group of 94 older adults (average age of 65) who had frequent nighttime leg cramps of four or more times over two weeks.  The volunteers were given either a magnesium oxide supplement or a placebo pill to take at bedtime.  Then, for the next four weeks, their nighttime leg cramp episodes and severity were recorded.  Results showed little difference in incidence or severity between the magnesium pills and the placebo.  From this study, it was concluded that magnesium oxide was ineffective for easing nighttime leg cramps.

However, questions have been raised in how the study was conducted.  Edward Blonz, Ph.D and an assistant professor in the department of clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, disagreed with the results.  He pointed out that magnesium oxide must be taken with a full glass of water or the preparation won’t work as it won’t be adequately absorbed into the bloodstream.  Dr. Blonz also criticized that the researchers did not indicate if they had instructed the volunteers for the study to drink enough water with the supplement or if blood or urine tests were performed to measure magnesium levels.

He also added that other magnesium preparations such as citrate, aspartate, lactate, and chloride are absorbed more thoroughly and may be more effective.

Ways to increase magnesium naturally

Magnesium may not get superstar status like other nutrients, but that fact should not deter anyone from doubting magnesium’s significance in its role in the body.  This mineral is essential for not only muscle relaxation but also for the activity of the heart muscle including the nerves that initiate the heartbeat and it helps regulate blood pressure.  An adequate intake also helps prevent arrhythmias, reduce cardiac damage from oxidative stress, keeps blood vessels healthy, prevents spasms of coronary arteries that can cause angina, and boosts HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

The best way to obtain magnesium is through proper food choices.  Men require 420 mg each day while women require 320 mg of magnesium a day.  Good food sources include halibut, spinach, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, walnuts, and tofu. 

For older people or anyone not eating a balanced diet, a basic multivitamin/mineral supplement is a good way to get supplemental magnesium.  Some calcium supplements also contain magnesium.

Tips for relieving nighttime leg cramps

To help reduce the incidence of waking up with painful leg cramps, here are some tips that may prevent them:

·      During the day, wear comfortable shoes with low heels.

·      Stretch out the calf muscles during the day and again before going to bed by doing exercises to strengthen them such as toe raises.

·      Massage the calf muscles, especially at night.

·      Take a warm bath or shower to relax the muscles.  A heating pad placed on the muscle can also help.

·      Anyone sleeping on their back should keep the sheets and blankets loose so they don’t press down on the feet causing cramping.

·      Drink plenty of fluids.  Sports drinks such as Gatorade will often help leg cramps.

·      When a nighttime leg cramps happens, as difficult as it can be, stand up and walk around.