Aging & ArthritisGeneral HealthPain



I have been meaning to write about this for over a year because I’ve been giving this advice on the phone, in the office and over the Internet, so it’s just time to put it down on paper. And someone on Facebook just messaged me about a treatment for cramps, so it’s time.

First let me define the kind of cramping I’m talking about and distinguish it from the cramps suffered by young athletes on the field. I’m talking about leg cramps experienced mainly at night by those over the age of forty. I’m talking about the cramps that suddenly make your foot look like the banned lotus blossom of Chinese foot binding. The cramps that make you fly out of your bed in the middle of the night, desperately trying to stretch the muscle that feels like it’s about to rip loose from your bone. The cramps that make you walk around your hallway looking like a velociraptor, the one claw sticking up in the air, the remainder of the foot hobbled and stumping around until the hold relaxes. Yeh. That cramp. If you know what I’m talking about, then this blog is for you.

Both my husband and I suffer from these kinds of cramps, and being physicians, we have searched the “scholarly” literature, trying to find some answer, even for our own personal woes. There is nothing of significance; no double-blind prospective study, no educated guess, no meta-analysis out there on the treatment, never mind the cure for this affront to human comfort and nightly peace of mind.

I thought I had come close when I found some garlic vinegar concoction on Amazon. For a couple of nights in a row, when I started to feel a cramp coming on, I would reach over and take a swig of that stuff. I bought a six pack of it. It works great in a salad, and that’s where it’s been relegated to at this point. The benefit was unfortunately, just coincidental.

I was standing in line next to a display of Emergen-C at the local pharmacy. I decided I needed to take more vitamin C and the tasty, fizzy concoction sounded better than chewing or swallowing a pill, so I bought some. About two weeks later I noted I had not had any cramps in a couple of weeks, and the Emergen-C was the only change in behavior I could think of. I actually tried to reach out to the company to tell them they had a cure for cramps when I suddenly went airborne out of my bed at 3:00 in the morning with an adductor cramp.

Let me tell you a little about adductor cramps. The adductors are the big group of muscles on the inside of your thighs which pull your legs together. When you get an adductor cramp, you come flying out of that bed, legs spread as wide as you can get them. You’re hobbling around like a fiddler crab, until that thing decides it wants to give up its hold and the whole time you’re wondering if it’s possible to die from pain. Just FYI, I don’t think you can die from pain. You can only wish you could.

Over time I began to look at the common denominators mentioned above. So football players aside, who gets cramps? Old people. When do they get cramps? At night.

What do old people have in common which could have something to do with cramping? Our circulation. Like many things, it ain’t what it used to be. Poorer circulation means maybe your tired, old, stiff muscles are deprived of something they need in order to stay relaxed when you stretch or move them.

And when do cramps occur? At night. In the evening.

And what happens in the evening? You begin a process of resting and in most cases taking off your shoes and maybe getting into a pair of shorts. All day you’ve been running around, mostly with shoes on. So your muscles stay used, stretched out and warmed up. In the evening you most likely slip off your shoes, and some of you might hike your legs up and watch a little TV or sit around and chat. The legs are exposed to the cold air and begin a slow process of cooling off. In an older person, this process is hard to reverse, and soon the calves and feet are cooled down to a point where the circulation is very sluggish. Now you are primed for a cramp.

I always like to think about the things I CAN change when I contemplate conservative treatment of various conditions. I can’t change my age. But maybe I can do something about my circulation.

So I started a process of preventing the cool down. I keep my feet in some kind of shoe, slipper or sock. There are two places in my house where I might spend a lot of time in the evenings: the room where I watch TV or play my guitar, and the place where I keep my computer. I have a little space heater in both of those rooms and I turn them on my feet if they start to feel cool. I have a small heating blanket which I position it at the very bottom of our bed. About an hour before bedtime I turn it on. So when I get in bed my feet stay nice and toasty. I have virtually eliminated cramps. My hubby too. Believe me, this has improved the quality of our sleep and therefore our lives!

One situation which proved my theory was the fact that I probably get the worst cramps when I stay in hotel rooms. This makes sense because in most hotel rooms the AC units blow cold air right across the bottom of the bed. The rooms get cold very quickly, and the place where you spend most of your time is propped up on the bed. If you’re not going to sleep, you’re just sprawled out on the bed reading, chatting, or watching TV. Unlike your home, the hotel bed just lends itself to being the place to hang out. The cool down process comes hard and fast. I now travel with my heating blanket and a pair of fat socks.

This has worked like a charm for my husband and me. If you are consistent with this preparation, I’m sure it will work for you! And I will have discovered a CURE, or at least a TREATMENT for cramps.

Stay warm my old friends.

  1. Deanna Adams

    Thanks Dr. Bergin for this much needed info. I have had really bad cramps occasionally that are in my right foot and calve, especially after working a long 12 hour shift. I increased my water intake somewhat which helped slightly. I am definitely going to give your advice a try and see what happens. Thanks..;)

  2. Sue Bradley

    Hi Barbara,
    Just wanted to say that my husband and I have come to the same conclusion regarding night cramps. We are both just turned 70, and have suffered from night cramps in the legs as you describe. Even through the hot summer that we are having, we both now have hot water bottles every night and we no longer suffer from cramps.(fingers crossed).
    Thankyou for your blog I found you on line when I was looking for help regarding my hip bursa which is a little approved, I know I have to keep doing the excerisees.
    Kind regards
    Sue from U K

  3. T. Pitts

    I too suffer from these, as did my mother, grandmother, and number of friends. I found a natural supplement called Leg Cramps. It helps, but I think you are onto something. My legs and feet are always cold in the evening due to circulation. I’m going to try your method. Thanks.

  4. Angela McNelly

    Start taking magnesium citrate. It’s cheap and your body needs it for practically every process. It’s not rocket science. Just try it. It works. Buy the grape or lemon or cherry flavor glass laxative bottles for 98 cents at Wal-mart. One ounce has 282mg of Mg. Add 3oz. to your 1 liter water bottle and drink throughout the day. If your stool becomes too soft add less Mg. If you still have leg cramps add more Mg. Keep adjusting until you find the sweet spot. You’ll stay properly hydrated and won’t be Mg deficient anymore. I’m 47 and regularly perform training sessions that require 120 burpees, 120 pushups, 120 v-up twists, 120 inverted rows, and 120 kettle bell swings all be completed in less than 30 minutes. My spouse is 64 and works out right along side me. It took 2 years of slow and steady progress, but now we’re here, and we’re not going back. Just because you get older doesn’t mean you have to become sick and decrepit! Don’t believe that kind of BS! Eat and drink what your body needs. Stop poisoning it with cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, crappy food and laziness. You’ll be totally amazed at what it can do. Live long and be strong! ?

    1. Barbara

      I know about all those remedies: extra calcium, magnesium, pickle juice, vinegar, potassium. We’ve tried them all, and now we’re just keeping our feet warm, and not taking any supplements…and no cramps. But I have no problem with any other treatments you can think of. This is just my suggestion.


    Barbara, after we spoke, I tried all your suggestion and for the first two nights, I had no cramps, then the next two nights I only got one cramp and then it increased. I decided to wear my socks to bed on top of using the heating pad to warm up the bed, last night I had no cramps. from one who gets the cramps nightly in calves, front of leg from knee down, to ankle cramps where it feels like you have to pop your ankle joint back in, to cramps on top of the feet and the arch of your feet, to toes separating on their own, this is the most relief I have had in over 10 years. I have spent so much money on doctor visits and they look at me like I was crazy and had no idea. one doctor said blood work showed lack of potassium, so I take a supplement, a specialies said I had PAD and another specialist said I did not, and the story continues with no relief. I am forever gratefull to you for your suggestion and will continue to use them. they are the most relief I have had in 10 years. keep up the good works and let us know if you come across anything else we can try

    1. Barbara

      If I’m consistent with it…it works! If I let those feet get cold in the evening or even during the night, I’m more likely to get a cramp!

  6. Jones

    Thank you so much Dr Bergin. I have suffered from terrible leg and foot cramps for years. Although I do not consider myself old, I just turned 40. My question is, with the temperature in Texas in the 100’s, how do you sleep with a heating pad, or a heater? I am definitely willing to try anything to replace the chug of pickle juice at 2am.

    1. Barbara

      Lol! It’s hard but worth it. I love to have cold sheets and a cold room. I keep the heating blanket at the bottom of the bed so in general it only keeps my feet and calves cold. But trust me, if I even get a teeninetsy inkling of a hamstring, quad or adductor cramp, I pull that blanket all the way up to my waist…cold be damned! I’d rather roast than suffer a cramp!

  7. Judy Miller

    Great article and all the ones before! Regarding the cramps I only got them when I was pregnant and in the middle of the night. Pregnant 6 times and lots of cramps to deal with. I thought it was some little element that was low because of the pregnancy…my guess would be magnesium. And the cramps were only in my legs.

    1. Barbara

      A lot of folks claim to get better after adding magnesium to their diet. I still think in those over forty, the main culprit is our circulation. Stay warm my friend.

  8. Linda Fraidenburg

    Thank you so very much for validating my experience. When I’ve tried to get help everyone seems to assume I’m talking about occasional charley horses or some such minor temporary discomfort. This is so different, and so painful. Also dangerous for older folks like me–jerked awake and flying out of bed could lead to falls that might fracture bones, blood pressure spikes or drops can lead to fainting, etc.
    Your reasoning seems spot on–I do have poor foot and ankle circulation and have worn sox in bed for years. And nighttime heat at my feet has seemed helpful. I will try your suggestions regarding consistent use of warming. Thanks again for thinking this through.

    1. Barbara

      I’m glad you are trying out my suggestions. You’re absolutely right about the secondary problems related to cramps…potential injury when “flying out of bed.” My husband and I have discussed this. If I were in a disabled state, it would be very dangerous to get out of bed quickly. In fact I counsel patients to sit up in bed slowly, turn lights on and then stand slowly, with support if needed. Well, there’s none of that when I get a quad, hamstring, severe toe or adductor cramp. There would be great potential for falling and sustaining injury. I can’t even imagine getting a big cramp, jumping out of bed, falling, breaking my hip and then lying there with a broken hip and an adductor cramp. Hell on earth! Stay warm. It’s working 99% of the time. I haven’t had a big muscle cramp in 6 months. If I have a toe cramp, it’s because I forgot to STAY warm. The warming has got to start early in the evening, not just when we get ready for bed. Thanks for reading my blog. Please tell your friends about it!

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