Should you worry? 10 reasons your legs ache at night & treatment

Do you have aching legs for no reason?

Many people find themselves tossing and turning at night, losing precious sleep due to their aching legs. If you’ve landed on this article, you’re probably going through the same torment.

And your inability to figure out why is causing more distress than ever. There could be numerous reasons why your legs ache at night, depending on the kind of pain you go through. Is it a tingling sensation? Or a throbbing pain? Does the pain seem to stem directly from the bones? Whatever it may be, please don’t ignore it.

What causes achy legs & cramps at night?

Leg pain can be an indicative symptom of a more serious underlying health issue that requires earnest medical attention. Although that may not be the case for everyone, as most leg pain can be fixed with a few lifestyle changes. Whether your legs pain requires a few home remedies or a full-fledged health check-up, take a close look at all the possible reasons why it may be happening:

  1. Exerting your body beyond its capacity

One of the most common reasons for aching legs at night is their over-exertion during the daytime. Many people end up pushing themselves beyond their body’s limited capacity. It can be whether through strenuous exercise or overburdened day jobs. Pushing your body beyond its saturation point without the necessary nutrients, hydration levels, and experts lead to muscle cramping. By experts, we mean gym trainers or dieticians. Here’s what we think might be going on:

Muscle Cramps

Some leg cramps after a heavy leg day at the gym are normal and healthy. When you exert your muscles beyond their usual capacity, it causes the muscle fibers to break down. Soon enough, these fibers start building themselves up stronger and larger than they initially were. It results in a stronger you!

If you practice under a fitness trainer, they usually ensure you that muscle pain and cramps are quite normal.

Electrolyte Imbalance

Most people who lift weight at the gym are used to experiencing some soreness here and there. This soreness usually wears out when your body gets used to a certain pressure level. It’s until it is challenged with the introduction of some heavier weight. Nonetheless, suppose you’re experiencing leg cramps or muscle soreness even after practicing the same routine for weeks. In that case, you could be suffering from an Electrolyte Imbalance.

Electrolytes are minerals that your body’s muscles require to function. It includes things such as

  • potassium
  • calcium
  • chloride
  • and phosphate

Losing a large amount of body fluid through sweat or vomiting can cause you also to lose these electrolytes. It inevitably causes your legs to feel weak.

energy drinks

Electrolyte imbalance can also result from medical treatments such as chemotherapy. Assuming that you’re not suffering from any disease or treatment causing you to vomit or lose excess body fluid. You may just need to increase your electrolyte intake. Sports energy drinks or foods rich in minerals is usually a good solution. Consult a doctor if your cramps don’t resolve with a few dietary changes.

energy drinks in a container
  1. Muscle Injury

Often found among athletes, a muscle injury occurs when a muscle is stretched too far. Sometimes, it is just pulled. Other times it can also be torn. Suppose your leg muscles feel stiff or even spasm from time to time. In which case, you could be suffering from one of the following muscle injuries:

Muscle Strain

Often referred to as a ‘pulled muscle is a result of tiny microscopic tears in the muscle fibers resulting in a strain. Resting, applying hot or cold compression to the area, and anti-inflammatory medication usually offer relief until the muscle heals on its own.

cold packs

Muscle Tear

When the legs go through significant trauma due to strenuous activity or sudden movement, it can cause the muscle to tear. It is unnatural to how your body bend. A muscle tear is a graver injury than a muscle strain. It results in the blood vessels that supply the muscle oxygen and nutrients being torn.

A muscle tear is much more painful than a muscle tear, and anybody who suspects it should seek medical attention immediately. Anybody who experiences a torn muscle requires constant medical support. It’s usually followed by physiotherapy to get back on their feet.

Muscle Contusion

Sometimes your muscles can become injured externally without you performing any strenuous activities. This can happen by piercing your muscles through an external object without breaking the skin. This is usually called a “muscle bruise” due to visibly damaged blood vessels that become apparent on the skin’s surface.

Mild contusions can be resolved with icing, compression, and rest. However, more severe contusions may require surgery to relieve internal bleeding and swelling.

compression socks
  1. Vascular Pain

People suffer many kinds of leg pain. One of the many reasons for this leg pain is purely vascular. Vascular pain develops in the legs when there are difficulties getting proper blood flow to a particular tissue or nerve. If you’re suffering from vascular pain, here’s what you might be experiencing:

Throbbing leg pain when lying down.

You may suffer from vascular pain if you’re experiencing throbbing pain in the legs when lying down. There may possibly even be discoloration and visible blue-green or purplish nerves. Vascular pain can be indicative of many diseases. We’ve mentioned a couple of vascular diseases below, along with their symptoms. To truly understand them, it is important to consider what kind of events or lifestyle changes happened. Consider what happened before and during the time the leg pain initially emerged.

Peripheral Arterial Disease (P.A.D.)

Fat or calcium deposits built up around the wall of the arteries end up tapering the blood vessels. It results in poor blood flow to the limbs. In simpler words, the nerves become so narrow due to built-up fat or calcium deposit. For that reason, they cannot deliver the appropriate blood flow to the limbs and tissues. Without adequate blood flow, muscles don’t receive sufficient oxygen and nutrients. It results in excruciating pain. P.A.D. usually occurs among people due to aging, diabetes, or smoking. Although P.A.D. can occur in any blood vessel, it appears more commonly in the legs than in the arms.

If one suffers from P.A.D., they probably:

  • Suffer from ‘intermittent claudication. It is pain that occurs when you’re muscles are moving and active and stops when you’re at ease or resting.
  • Your pain is not restricted to the legs. It also occurs in the buttocks, thighs, feet, and calves.
  • Pain when you’re walking or climbing any stairs.

P.A.D. is a serious medical condition. If you feel like you match the symptoms, you should visit your nearest physician. Depending on the severity, they can then refer you to a peripheral vascular specialist if needed.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

DVT is another medical condition with the symptoms of:

  • throbbing pain
  • discoloration of the legs
  • and possibly even visible nerves in the leg.

DVT often occurs when a blood clot has formed inside the veins. For this reason, DVT is often only visible in one particular area on the leg. Symptoms of DVT include:

  • Sensations that are hot and painful
  • The pain usually occurs when pressure is applied while standing or walking

Maybe the person with the above symptoms also suffers from dizziness or difficulty breathing. Then immediately call for medical help.

DVT can easily be escalated into a more serious disease – pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolism is a condition where arteries in the lungs may be blocked, or a blood clot may be present.

Varicose Veins

Another vascular medical condition that results in veiny-looking legs is Varicose Veins. Varicose Veins are a condition where the veins have to work twice as hard to carry the blood back to the heart. Because they aren’t strong enough to take the blood flow, the blood can flow backward. It causes them to clot, twist, or stretch. It inevitably leads to pain. Symptoms include:

  • Legs that throb, burn, or cramp.
  • Legs may also feel heavy or even swell.
  • Worsening of painful sensations when standing or sitting for an extended period of time.

Varicose Veins is a condition that often occurs due to:

  • age
  • pregnancy
  • gaining unhealthy weight or standing/sitting for extended periods.

Usually, people suffering from Varicose Veins try to maintain a healthy weight or wear compression stockings to ease the pain. If that doesn’t work, there are a ton of more advanced medical treatments that one can discuss with their doctor to ease the pain.

These were just a couple of Vascular problems. The most common that can be the cause of some agonizing pain experienced in the legs. Others may include Cellulitis and Varicose Eczema. But the pain in these conditions usually stems from the skin rather than the inside of the legs.

  1. Lifestyle induced pain

Your leg pain may simply be a result of your lifestyle. Suppose you work a desk job where you’re required to sit all day. Maybe you work in a factory outlet that requires you to do detailed supervision and be on your feet all day. In that case, blood and fluid build up and weigh down your legs. When blood circulation that needs to keep moving to the heart is disrupted by prolonged standing or sitting, it results in swelling and pain. And so it can also induce cramping.

  1. Bone Stress Injuries

Muscle injuries occur when the muscle has gone through excessive stress. Bone stress injuries result from excessive weight and pressure on the legs. That too, without appropriate intervals of rest in between. Bones need not necessarily break or fracture to cause pain. Pain could also occur due to the following bone stress injuries:

Shin pain at night

If the leg pain you experience during the night is focused around your shinbone, you could be experiencing shin splits. They’re usually a consequence of overloading your tendons and shinbone with extreme levels of unmonitored activity. Gymnasts, dancers, and runners often get shin splits. Flat feet, rigid, or wearing the wrong shoes could also lead to shin splits. Luckily shin splits can be resolved by icing your feet several times a day and giving your legs their due rest. 

Stress Fracture 

Maybe you’re undergoing pain that feels like shin splits but doesn’t go away with icing. You could have a small crack in the shin bone. It is called a stress fracture. It usually occurs when the muscles around the bone don’t offer cushion and support to the bone as they should. The best way to heal a stress fracture is to rest it out. It can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks to fully recover.

Foot cramps at night are a classic sign of…

Foot Tendonitis! If you experience foot cramps or any kind of pain in the foot region, it is a classic sign of your tendons being inflamed. The tendons are the fibrous cords linking your muscle to the bone. There are several such tendons present in your foot that allow it flexibility as well as stability. Injury to these tendons is fairly uncommon. And if the tendons were to rupture, the pain experienced is not like a cramp. It will be excruciating where you’d be in the emergency room and not have the patience to read this article! 

Nonetheless, these tendons can become inflamed due to various reasons. It includes things such as overexercising or over-straining the foot with too much physical activity. It can cause pain and a sensation of foot cramps. The tendons of your foot or any part of your body could also become inflamed due to:

  • diabetes
  • infection
  • or rheumatoid arthritis

They’re discussed further in this article. 

Depending on where your foot aches, we can figure out which of your foot tendons are facing some pressure:

  • Extensor Tendonitis – This happens on the top of your foot, the exact spot where you would tie your shoelaces. 
  • Achilles Tendonitis – If your calves are aching, you may be suffering from Achilles Tendonitis. The Achilles is the strongest tendon in the body that connects the calf to the heel. It is also the spot where you’d suffer some pain if this tendon is inflamed. The tendon also helps you stand up on your toes, which is why having Achilles Tendonitis tends to limit your movement.
  • Peroneal Tendonitis – Peroneal Tendons are the two tendons that run on the outside of your ankle bone. They connect the middle of your foot to the, all the way up to the ankle. If your ankle hurts, then this is the tendon that may be inflamed.
  • Posterior Tibial Tendonitis – This tendon connects the calf to the bones in the foot. Posterior Tibial Tendonitis causes pain in the ankle that can travel all the way up to the calf. 
  • Plantar Fasciitis – This is a ligament, not a tendon. If it is inflamed, it can produce the same level of discomfort as Tendonitis. It connects the heel to the arch of your foot (the ‘L’ shape of your foot where the leg is attached).
  1. Neurological Factors

Whenever we think of leg pain, we associate it with muscle tension and injury. It is a by-product of extensive exercise or accidental trauma. However, several neurological factors can also induce pain in the legs. Neurology is the study of the brain, spinal cords, and nerves. 

The nervous system originates from the brain. It sends signals throughout your body to control movement, thoughts, and reflexes. Problems with the nerves that transmit these messages can cause disruptions in the body resulting in all sorts of aches. Here are a couple of neurological factors that can trigger leg pain:

Restless leg Syndrome

The restless leg syndrome is a sleep disorder. It is a sleep disorder because the restlessness, involuntary movements, and aching that a person with R.L.S. suffers can cause insomnia. People suffering from R.L.S. have described their sensations as tingling or jerks. They go as far as saying they’re feeling like electric shocks and burning are experienced.

The causes of R.L.S. are also quite varying and confusing. While R.L.S. can be caused by inadequate dopamine levels and low iron levels, it can also be a by-product of other medical conditions. These medical conditions include:

  • depression
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • kidney disease
  • diabetes
  • pregnancy
  • etc.

It’s also important to note that most patients of R.L.S. have been diagnosed as they have a close relative with the disorder.

Peripheral Neuropathy or nerve damage

Peripheral Neuropathy is one very general term that describes all kinds of nerve damage to the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is responsible for sending sensory information from the brain through the spinal cord. It can affect one single nerve or several nerves at the same time. For this reason, it can affect right about any location in the body. It includes the legs. 

There are more than a hundred types of nerve damage. Here they are classified based on the type of sensation you may be feeling:

  • Sensory Neuropathy- Affects the sensory nerves. It causes sensations to the touch, such as hypersensitivity, pain, or inability to feel pain.
  • Motor Neuropathy- Affects the brain’s muscles. It results in muscle cramps, muscle weakness, muscle spasms, loss of muscle control (finding it difficult to control small movements).
  • Autonomic Neuropathy- Affects the body’s systems that the brain controls unconsciously, such as bowel movements and the ability to withstand temperature changes. It usually doesn’t affect the legs.

Sciatica Nerve Pain

Sciatica nerves are the longest and thickest nerve in your body, consisting of five roots. Two roots originate from the lower back (lubar spine). At the same time, three emerge from near the buttocks (sacrum). There is one sciatica nerve on each side of your body. It runs through the hips, down the buttocks. It ends below the knee, where it branches into several different nerves that extend to the foot and toes. 

Injury to the sciatica nerve is a rare encounter. Nonetheless, any pain felt in the lower back that finds its way down the leg is often characterized as sciatica pain. Any irritation or jerks felt in the legs or foot could result from nerve damage in the Sciatica. The nerve doesn’t have to be damaged. It can also be slightly pinched and still cause you pain. 

Most Sciatica pain can be released through ice packs, physiotherapy, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatory drugs.

therapy ice pack

Why does my leg hurt when I wake up?

As with other kinds of pain that may ease up when you’re at rest, neurological pain usually stays for a couple of weeks before it subsides completely. As with restless leg syndrome, it becomes difficult to sleep as your dopamine levels drop at night. It causes even more irritability and mood swings in the morning. Neurological pain has less to do with muscles and injury and more to do with nerve damage.

  1. Bone pain in legs

Other than the pain that is a cause of excess stress to the bones, there are a bunch of other diseases. They can give rise to pain that stems from the bones. It is usually referred to as Musculoskeletal pain. Most of these diseases don’t have any apparent causes, so it’s useful to learn about a few common conditions:

Arthritis

This condition affects the joints. The pain you may be experiencing in your hips, joints, and knees could be a sign of arthritis as a result. There are over a hundred types of arthritis, all of which affect the joints. It causes intense pain. The pain is usually unbearable, putting pressure on them even while walking or standing. Common types of arthritis are mentioned below:

  • Osteoarthritis- This is the most common type of arthritis due to repeated stress on the joint cartilage.
  • Gout- Gout affects the joints when uric acid crystalizes and forms deposits around the joint.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis- occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and internal organs. It causes the joint linings to erode and cause painful swelling.
  • Ankylosing Spondylitis – arthritis of the lower back and spine reducing flexibility, more commonly found among men. 

Spinal Stenosis

Another musculoskeletal condition that can cause pain in the legs is Spinal Stenosis. The condition usually results when the spaces between the bones that make up your spine are too small. This can put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine. It creates weakness, pain, or numbness in the legs. For people who may suffer from spinal stenosis, pain isn’t limited to the legs. It can also occur in the lower back region and the neck. 

While some people just happen to be born with a small spinal canal, spinal stenosis results from:

  • spinal injuries
  • tumors
  • bone spurs
  • or thick ligaments

It happens when they’re pushing into the spinal canal.

Popliteus Tendonitis

Like foot tendonitis, popliteus tendonitis is caused when the popliteus tendon gets overwhelmed. It is essential for knee stability. It is usually found among athletes running or training downhill or on banked surfaces. If you have sharp pain stemming from your knee’s back, you could suffer from popliteus tendonitis. Luckily, icing and some rest can heal the overwhelmed tendon in about six weeks.

  1. Pregnancy 

Suppose you’re pregnant and suffering from some acute leg pain. In that case, it’s most probably a result of gained weight and the same disrupted circulation of the blood. It could also be that the fetus is putting pressure on the mother’s nerves, causing the legs to cramp. Some doctors even say that low calcium or the change in how your body processes the calcium intake during pregnancy leads to cramps in the legs. Either way, getting leg cramps during pregnancy is pretty common and nothing to worry about.

  1. A side effect of medication

It could be possible that your leg cramps are a side effect of a medication you take regularly. If this is the case, you must talk to your doctor about the leg pain you are suffering. They may switch up your medication or give you additional medication to ease the leg pain. 

We know how it sounds. You may wonder how a medication being taken to treat a condition cause further discomfort to our bodies. Unfortunately, sometimes the condition we’re dealing with becomes very necessary for the doctors to control. They do so even if it means tolerating the few side effects experienced here and there as long as the larger, more complex disease is taken care of.

Here are common medicine salts that induce leg pain:

  • Zolpidem
  • Diuretics
  • Naproxen
  • Statins
  • Clonazepam 
  • Conjucated estrogens
  • Pregabalin

If any of the above look familiar, you can check in with your doctor for their side effects.

  1. A change of seasons

One unexplored topic is the effect of the changing seasons on our bodies. Of course, weather changes induce cold, viral infection. According to Scott Garrison, muscle cramps may be more common in the summer. He’s a professor at the University of Alberta. Due to the higher vitamin D levels in the summer, nerve growth and repair may be more active. It triggers these leg cramps. When the vitamin D levels peak, the nerves grow and repair at a higher speed. It results in some pain

As for the winter, the cold temperature can tighten up the muscles and joints. It causes pain. It is why it is essential to cover up well in the winters and not put your body through any uncomfortable transition. 

Treatment

What is good for leg cramps?

We hope through this article, you could vaguely identify what kind of leg pain you are suffering from. If there is discoloration of the skin, it could be vascular. It could be strains, muscle tears, or even stress fractures if you’ve been through strenuous physical activity. If you feel the pain is coming from the bones, you might want to check with a doctor for a proper diagnosis. We don’t recommend you stay home and go unchecked with a doctor if you suspect a severe condition. Nonetheless, there is a couple of treatments we’ve mentioned for momentary pain relief at home:

Massage and Stretch

An excellent way to deal with light muscle cramps is by gently stretching and massaging them. Extend your legs forward while you’re lying down. If the cramped muscle is the calf or hamstring, stretch your foot so that it extends towards your head. For a cramp in the front thigh, push your foot in the opposite direction. Push it away from the face. 

heel Stretcher and Foot Rocker for Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles Tendonitis and Tight Calves

The R.I.C.E. method

The R.I.C.E. method is for injuries that may be too grave to be handled by simple stretches, such as ankle or wrist sprains. This method can be used at home to relieve some amount of pain. Although if swelling or pain stays for days, you might want to consult a doctor.

Rest

Understand that when your body goes through any pain or discomfort, it requires some time off to rest. Take some time off and avoid putting any pressure on the affected muscle or injured part of your leg.

Ice

Ice the affected area with an ice pack. You can wrap the ice pack in a cloth or towel so that you don’t get frostbite from it. Ice the area for 20 minutes every few hours. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can also use a bag of frozen peas or corn. Or you can easily make an ice pack by stuffing ice cubes in a ziplock bag. 

Compression

The third step of the R.I.C.E. method involves offering compression to the affected area. With the use of an elastic medical bandage, wrap the area to offer it some comfortable compression. We mentioned ‘comfortable’ as wrapping the bandage too tightly will interrupt blood flow.

Elevation:

Raise the leg that’s aching above the level of the heart. You can do this by throwing a bunch of pillows under your leg. Try keeping it elevated whenever possible and for as long as possible.

leg elevation pillow

Calf still sore 2 days after cramp

Some amount of pain and soreness in the leg muscles after a challenging routine of exercise or lifting weights is normal. We mentioned previously in the article. If you feel that your calf muscles or any leg muscles are taking a long time to heal, you may have some nutrient deficiency. Consuming foods rich in potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium is a great way to boost your muscle healing process.

Here are a few supplement suggestions you can take alongside your healthy diet. They’ll help ensure your intaking essential vitamins every day.

F.A.Q.

When should you worry about leg cramps?

If there is a change in your exercise routine, your muscles will naturally take a couple of days to get used to it. If the cramps happen so frequently and cause a significant hindrance in the quality of your life, then seek medical help immediately.

Can leg cramps be a sign of something serious?

Most cramps are temporary and can be relieved with a few anti-inflammatory drugs or the R.I.C.E. method mentioned above. Depending on the sensations and the severity of pain experienced, they could indicate something serious. But even then, do not worry. Serious conditions such as a fracture or arthritis are now easily overcome, thanks to the advancement of medicine. If not overcome, one can lead a normal life with the proper treatment and a good lifestyle.

How to prevent Charley Horses?

Charley horses are another name for muscle cramps and spasms. Stretching and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to avoid cramps. Suppose you know that you will be challenging your body with exercise. Then, it is a good idea to stretch before and after it. Also, follow up with sufficient minerals and a protein-rich diet to balance the loss of electrolytes and help build muscles. Staying hydrated throughout the day is also crucial to preventing Charley Horses.

What is your body lacking when you have leg cramps?

Your body can lack potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It includes proper hydration levels. Taking appropriate supplements for these minerals will ensure you never lack these nutrients. Supplements are great for people who struggle to maintain a healthy diet. This way, the supplements ensure you are never at a deficit of vital minerals. It can lead to leg cramps.

How can you tell the difference between a blood clot and a leg cramp?

You can easily tell the difference between a blood clot and a leg cramp. A muscle cramp will usually cause pain in the entire affected muscle. Suppose you have your calves aching. The ache will take place throughout the whole muscle. At the same time, the pain of a blood clot will only be around a specific spot. This particular area will also be red or have some sort of discoloration apparent on the surface of the skin.

When should I go to the doctor for leg cramps?

You should go to the doctor for your leg cramps if you experience any of the following:
– Leg cramps at night cause constant hindrances in your sleep cycle.
– Severe pain right after an injury or traumatic event that you went through. Consider both mental and physical trauma. 
– Leg cramps have lasted more than a week despite changes in your routine or lifestyle.
– Leg cramps coupled with severe discoloration of the legs.
– Leg pain that travels all the way up to the spine.