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Bone, Muscle, and Joint Problems

Muscle Cramps and Leg Pain

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

Leg pain and muscle cramps ("charley horse" or "stitch") are common. They often occur during exercise, especially during hot weather, or at night. Dehydration, low levels of potassium in the body, or using a muscle that is not stretched well may cause cramps.

Shinsplints cause pain in the front of the lower leg. Their cause is un-clear, but they tend to develop after activities in which the legs are overused.

Arthritis can also cause leg pain (See Arthritis). Leg pain that runs from the buttocks down the back of the leg and into the foot may be caused by sciatica. See Sciatica.

Phlebitis , an inflammation of a vein, also causes leg pain, usually in the calf of one leg. This condition can be serious if blood clots that form in the vein break loose and lodge in the lungs. Phlebitis is most common after surgery or prolonged bed rest.

Decreased blood flow to the leg muscles caused by hardening of the arteries (called intermittent claudication ) is another possible cause of leg cramps. Symptoms may include cramping pain in the calf that comes on with activity or exertion and is relieved by rest. Symptoms often occur after you walk a certain distance.

Prevention

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  • Warm up well and stretch before any activity. Also stretch after exercise to keep hot muscles from shortening and cramping.

  • Drink extra fluids before and during exercise, especially during hot or humid weather.

  • Include plenty of potassium in your diet. Bananas, orange juice, and potatoes are good sources.

  • To avoid stomach muscle cramps ("stitches") during exercise, do side stretches before exercising and learn to breathe with your lower lungs. See Roll Breathing on See Relaxation Skills.

  • If leg cramps wake you at night, take a warm bath and do some stretching exercises before going to bed. Keep your legs warm while sleeping.

    Growing Pains

    Children age 6 to 12 often develop harmless "growing pains" in their legs at night. Other than growth itself, the cause is unknown. A heating pad, acetaminophen, or gentle massage of the legs may help.

Home Treatment

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  • If there is pain, swelling, or heaviness in the calf of only one of your legs, or if you have other symptoms that cause you to suspect phlebitis (see When to Call a Health Professional), call your doctor before you try Home Treatment.

  • Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle.

  • Drink more fluids. Cramps are often related to dehydration.

  • The best treatment for shinsplints is ice, pain relievers (aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen), and 1 to 2 weeks of rest followed by a gradual return to exercise.

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If you have any of the following symptoms of phlebitis:

    • Continuous leg or calf pain

    • Swelling of one leg

    • Any redness that is tender to the touch

    • Fever

  • If you have signs of impaired blood flow such as:

    • Pain that comes on after you walk a certain distance and that goes away with rest.

    • Sudden onset of moderate to severe pain with coldness or pale skin in the lower part of the leg.

    • Pale or blue-black colour to the skin of one or both legs, feet, or toes.

  • If muscle cramps are not relieved by Home Treatment.

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