Calf cramps can be miserable for those who suffer from them. Through the years, I’ve had patient after patient come in and tell me how thankful they were to finally get rid of the cramps in their calf muscles after I successfully treated them.
Of course, when people have cramps in their muscles, they want to find relief fast. It can be extremely painful and make you care about nothing else when you are in that moment.
You may experiment by drinking pickle juice, or you may have done all of the stretching that your friends, doctors and therapists have told you and still have cramping in your lower legs.
What are Possible Causes of Cramps?
Many possibilities can exist as the culprit. It could be electrolyte imbalances, medications, dehydration, nerve impingement, and other disorders. I will briefly discuss some of these but this article will mainly focus on nerve impingement as the primary cause of calf cramping.
Dehydration is the most common cause of muscle cramping in general. The muscles need water. Water carries oxygen to the muscles. Water also carries other nutrients needed for proper nerve and muscle function and low levels of water can throw the whole system into deficiency leading to severe cramping and muscle pain.
How are Electrolytes related to Muscle Cramps?
Electrolytes are really important when it comes to maintaining a cellular balance. Some important electrolytes include: calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium.
Too much calcium in the bloodstream can cause extreme muscle cramps. Multiple conditions can cause elevated serum calcium such as osteoporosis, and even cancer. Taking too much vitamin D can cause muscle cramps. Ingesting excess dairy can do the same.
Often patients will tell me that they take a magnesium supplement to relieve their cramps. This can be a problem as well because muscles need magnesium but not too much.
Calcium and magnesium play an important role in the acid base buffering system inside of the body. You don’t want too much or too little and blindly taking supplements could throw one or both out of normal clinical range.
Potassium is neuro-excitatory which means that it will increase nerve firing. Increased nerve firing to the muscles can cause them to contract and cramp.
We need potassium for all kinds of cellular functions and the heart is a muscle that particularly needs adequate levels of potassium but once again, you don’t want too much or too little. Both low and high levels of potassium can cause muscle cramping.
Sodium is better known as salt. Cramping is especially common in athletes who sweat a lot and their sodium levels drop as a result. Muscle tissues need adequate levels of sodium to function properly and low levels will cause cramping and even be life threatening.
This is why people with adrenal and kidney dysfunction can have problems with cramping. The adrenal glands and kidneys are heavily involved with electrolyte balance. They are like a band and conductor. The adrenal glands and kidneys have to work together and maintain the fine balance for what the body needs.
If the body is just a little out of balance in these areas, it can cause major health problems including death.
How do You check Electrolytes?
Electrolytes can be seen on a complete blood chemistry that includes a “Comprehensive Metabolic Panel”. Regular blood work won’t show electrolytes. You have to have the Comprehensive Metabolic Panel performed to check for electrolytes.
The larger question is what do you do when your electrolytes are out of balance. The adrenal glands and kidneys are really good at regulating electrolytes when they are healthy. The fix isn’t usually to take something that you are deficient in but instead to find the cause of the deficiency.
Do Medications cause Muscle Cramps?
The most common medication associated with muscle cramps throughout the body is called a “diuretic”. A diuretic medication is one that causes increased urination. Increased urination causes excess water to leave the body.
Diuretics are commonly used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, and liver disease by decreasing the amount of fluids being retained by the body.
The subsequent possible dehydration that can occur with the use of diuretics can also cause muscle cramping.
So, I have listed some of the common causes of muscle cramping. However, these causes are usually transient which means that if you identify the cause, such as low sodium, you can fix the problem.
Can a Pinched Nerve cause Calf Cramps?
So far, we’ve been talking about metabolic causes of calf cramps. However, this article isn’t for the easy to fix muscle cramps. It is about muscle cramping in the calves and lower legs caused by nerve impingement and the neurological component of cramping in the lower legs.
The nerves in the low back come out of the spine and travel into the legs. The nerves in the lower lumbar spine are the L4 and L5 nerve roots that are contained in the L4-L5 and L5-S1 disc spaces.
When someone has degenerative disc disease, a bulging disc, spinal stenosis, or a herniated disc that is dehydrated and dried up and arthritic, it can cause pressure to be put on the nerve roots.
This nerve root pressure can sometimes cause low back, hip, or leg pain and sciatica. It can also cause a form of peripheral neuropathy called compressive radicular neuropathy where people will have burning, tingling, or numbness in their lower legs and feet.
The alterations in nerve signaling can also cause muscle cramps. The best way I can explain it is to to describe what happened to me last year.
My Story of Low Back Pain, Sciatica, and Calf Cramps
In August of 2017, I was working out and hurt my back. Shortly after, I developed sciatica in my right leg. I went through my treatment protocol and completely eliminated my low back and right leg pain/sciatica.
However, in the month following my treatments, I had a sensation in the back of both of my calf muscles. It felt like a golf ball in the middle of each calf. I had two cramps that wouldn’t go away. My pain was gone but the persistent cramps where there.
During the month after my treatments, my calf cramps disappeared. That is when I knew that I was fully recovered and could physically do whatever I wanted again. It felt so good.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have had to know what calf cramps feel like. But, I believe that we all go through things in life for a reason.
I believe that the reason I had to deal with calf cramps is so that I will understand what my patients are going through when they are suffering from debilitating low back, leg, or calf pain in the form of muscle cramps.
It helped me realize truly how important it is to get relief from such a condition and what it means for my patients who get relief when they were unable to find it elsewhere.
Health is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie