All cramped up

by Karen Bowen

Have you ever drifted off in your bunk only to be awakened from a sound sleep with excruciating cramps in your legs? Many people experience painful nighttime leg cramps – involuntary spasms that usually involve the muscles of the calf, thigh, or feet.

Unfortunately, there is not one identifiable cause for nighttime leg cramps. They may just be related to natural aging or might be caused by a variety of physical conditions that could be resolvable or treatable, such as: overworked muscles; compromised circulation; physical structural disorders; mineral deficiencies; medications; medical procedures; metabolic issues, etc.

Overworking the leg muscles in a particularly strenuous physical activity or exercise, or becoming active after hours of relatively inactive driving could trigger nighttime cramping. Lessen the possibility by gradually warming up and increasing blood flow to the inactive muscles with stretches before extreme or prolonged movement.

Restricted blood circulation in your legs and feet throughout the day can also lead to cramping at night. If your rig’s seat position cuts off the circulation to your feet, adjust its height so your knees remain parallel to the floor (or slightly higher) and regularly shift your sitting position while driving to provide unimpeded circulation to your lower extremities.

As well, the following internal, physical structural disorders commonly affect blood flow or create nerve pressure – peripheral artery disease (PAD) and spinal stenosis. With peripheral artery disease, the blood flow to your legs is reduced because of narrowed blood vessels, causing ischemic pain in advanced stages. If you have leg pain from PAD, stretching your legs, lowering your feet below your hips and flexing them and/or taking a short walk around the room or circling your truck can increase blood flow and provide temporary relief.

With lower back spinal stenosis, the spaces within your spine become narrowed, putting pressure on the nerves running to your legs. Although surgery and drug options are available when this condition becomes debilitating, you may try these less invasive pain relief options: massage therapy; acupuncture; or chiropractic treatment, for earlier stages.

Other physical causes for leg cramps include: flat feet; dehydration; diarrhea; muscle fatigue; osteoarthritis; Parkinson’s disease; pregnancy; nerve damage from chemotherapy; nutrient deficiencies; and/or medications. Ask your doctor for other options if you take the following medications that often trigger nighttime leg camps: blood pressure drugs; statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs); diuretics; asthma medications; osteoporosis treatments; and/or oral contraceptives.

Although it’s unlikely you are driving professionally with the following metabolic issues in their advanced stages, they do create a high risk for leg cramping: kidney failure/disease – especially with dialysis; Addison’s disease; anemia; cirrhosis of the liver; hypo- and hyper-thyroidism; and/or Types 1 and 2 diabetes.

While leg cramps are generally just annoying, not dangerous, if you have severe, persistent cramping, or if the cramping begins after exposure to a toxin, such as lead, be sure to consult your doctor.

If you often experience nighttime leg cramps, consider the following preventive activities. Monitor your diet. Increase your intake of nutrients that maintain and restore your muscle and nerve tissues, including foods high in potassium (squash, sweet potato, and potato), magnesium (seeds, nuts, and whole grains), calcium (dairy, salmon, beans, and lentils) and Vitamin B-12 (eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and shellfish). Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to avoid dehydration.

Adjust your nightly routine. Before going to bed, prepare your leg muscles for sleep by stretching and/or doing bicycle-type exercises. In the night, allow your feet and lower legs full movement by keeping the bedding loose at the foot of your bed.

If you are still jolted awake by a leg cramp: relieve the spasm by massaging the affected muscle; applying ice or heat to the area of tightness/pain; flexing the foot of the affected leg toward your head; walking; stretching; wiggling the foot; taking a warm bath or hot shower; and/or drinking a glass of water.

Taking these proactive steps will help prevent leg pain from cramping your style (or disrupting your sleep).


Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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