Leg cramp: signs & symptoms

Lesley Dobson / 07 January 2015 ( 11 June 2019 )

Read our guide to leg cramp symptoms and find out when you should get help.

Read our guide to the causes of leg cramps

Sudden pain in your leg muscles is the main symptom you get when you have leg cramps. They can vary in intensity and in duration, but having leg cramps is an experience you’re unlikely to forget.

While adults and children of any age can have leg cramps, they are most common in older adults and pregnant women. About one third of people who are over 60 years old, and about 50% of people over 80 have leg cramps. Some people have them every day.

The pain that comes with leg cramps happens because a muscle in your leg has had a spasm – in other words, it has contracted, or shortened - too much. Usually this happens in your calf muscles, although occasionally it can happen in your thighs or feet. As well as the sudden pain, you may find that you have a hard lump of muscle under your skin.

The pain triggered by these muscle contractions can last for as little as a few seconds, or as long as 10 minutes, but fortunately most last for just a few minutes. However, you may find that the affected muscle still feels sore some hours later.

Many of us experience leg cramps only at night, often when we are asleep. This can be quite disruptive to our sleep patterns, and may lead to lack of sleep and affect your daily life. If this is the case, or if you have redness, swelling or muscle weakness in that area, see your GP.

If your cramps go on for longer than 10 minutes, and don’t get better, even after doing stretching and other exercises, it may be a sign that you have another medical condition, such as liver problems, or tetanus.

The bacteria that causes tetanus is Clostridium tetani. It lives in earth and human waste and animal manure. If infected soil gets into a cut, it can put you at risk of tetanus. The first symptom is stiffness in the muscles in your jaw, which can make it hard to open your mouth.

Over the following 24 to 72 hours this stiffness – along with muscle spasms -  are likely to spread to your neck and limbs. If you have these symptoms, get medical help straight away.

Read our guide to treatments for leg cramps

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.