Calf Cramps and cramps in legs and feet

Do you suffer from calf cramps? They can wake you suddenly from sleep, forcing you out of bed to prance around indecorously?
Calf Cramps can ruin sleep
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Do you suffer from foot, leg or calf cramps, forcing you to walk around and, if they occur in your sleep, making you leap from your bed and prance indecorously round the room?

In my experience they happen earlier in the night rather than later, and they can be very painful.

What is the reason for them in Chinese medicine?

Calf Cramps

There are several contributing causes including the following:

  • Liver Blood deficiency (this is a ‘syndrome‘ in Chinese medicine)
  • Cold
  • Liver Blood stasis (another ‘syndrome’)
  • Deficient Jing as you age
  • Obstruction along a channel (meridian), often from previous injury or surgery. The damage could have happened many years before you get the onset of cramps. Damage might also have occurred from over-exertion, including doing more than you are used to, such as when moving house.

 

Blood

As you see, several syndromes include Blood.

Blood Cells: deficient 'Blood' leads to foot and leg cramps
Image by Narupon Promvichai from Pixabay

Qi takes an infinite number of forms and in the body it works through Blood to nourish and moisten. If Blood is deficient, the tissues starve and aren’t repaired.

Blood itself is manufactured from

  • food eaten
  • The action of the Stomach, efficient or otherwise
  • The action of the Spleen, efficient or otherwise
  • Lung Qi (which you might equate with oxygen),
  • vital support from Kidney Jing (which equates here to the know-how your body inherited via your genes)
  • Heart Qi, which gives it motion and life

 

Consequently, if what you eat is either of poor quality or is not properly absorbed and transformed into Blood, cramps, including calf cramps may occur.

 

DIGESTION, STOMACH AND SPLEEN and Calf Cramps

Magnesium and calf cramps  This is where Western nutritional ideas come in, because nutritional science has identified various substances a lack of which may predispose you to cramps. These include Magnesium, for example, (but there are other possibilities).

Hence, many ‘Western’ approaches to dealing with cramps suggest you take Magnesium supplements. Gradually, nutritional scientists realised that Magnesium supplements on their own are absorbed only with difficulty (see a little story I tell patients here) if at all.  

We now know that for better Magnesium absorption you should take it with Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin K2 and Boron, for example, though exactly how much of each is a moot point. This is a Western solution, not Chinese.

However, it does show that what you eat must be good food and contain adequate supplies of the right nutrients (of which over-farming may have depleted the soil) AND your body must absorb them properly to manufacture good Blood.

If your digestion works poorly, try adding to what you eat or drink a herb long used in Chinese medicine to help it. This is ginger root (not the dried or powdered variety, nor the crystallised version with sugar). Cut a thin slice and pour boiling water over it. Leave for a few minutes until it cools, then sip it from time to time. Taken with food, this helps digestion. That helps make better Blood. It’s worth a try!

Stress and calf cramps

A common problem that interferes with the above process of Blood manufacture is emotional and stress, giving Qi stagnation. However, there is more to this than ‘just’ emotional stress! Many other factors can produce this – see my book ‘Qi Stagnation – Signs of Stress‘.

Woman stressing on front of the computer: can lead to calf and leg cramps
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Do not forget that it is possible to enjoy the excitement of stress but still to be harmed by it.

Also, if you do too many things at once and don’t get enough rest, your body can’t recover enough Qi to digest food. So don’t eat large meals when you are tired, or just before bedtime.

 

Tired?

If you are tired and it’s partly because you haven’t eaten, as long as it’s not within 3 hours of going to bed, eat a snack first. This could be some nuts, or an oatcake or an apple: perhaps some soup.

Then – important! – wait a few minutes. That small amount of food won’t overcome your stomach and will produce some energy. That energy may be enough for a larger meal. (It’s probably the idea behind the ‘starter’ which we often eat before the main dish.)

If you are tired and it’s late, nearly bedtime, and you haven’t eaten for a long time, eat just the snack, not the full meal. When, after sleep, you wake up refreshed, only then eat a larger meal.

Stress also makes people eat faster, chew less, and rush off after eating to get on with the next job. These upset digestion. Teach yourself to eat at a more leisurely pace, chewing each mouthful well.

Some medications upset the way your body works and can deplete its resources, meaning Blood deficiency … meaning more cramps. In fact, medication is frequently a cause. The most dependable way of finding out which medication is your problem is to stop taking them in turn for a few days each, and see which is the culprit. But of course, discuss this with your health provider first! Don’t stop taking something that is preserving your life!

So calf cramps can have many causes.

Calf Cramps and cramps in legs and feet Video

Calf Cramps with Pain

Here there is often either Liver Blood Stasis and/or a history of injury. Injury prevents the smooth flow of Qi and Blood, starving the tissues and leading to calf cramps.

Cramps with Numbness

Numbness is a further extension of Blood deficiency.

Here you get what is called Empty Wind, which arises because the Blood, being deficient and not properly flowing, can’t prevent ‘bubbles’ appearing in it.

A stream flowing steadily like healthy Qi
Scottish Stream

Please realise that these aren’t real bubbles!

 They are a figure of speech to explain the idea of Empty Wind. If you have ever seen a river during drought, as the water flows over the river bed there are many small obstacles for it and it makes a noise, as bubbles form and collapse, quite different from the noise of the full river.

Another way of thinking about it is this. If your blood is deficient, it cannot feed your nerves, so they don’t send your the correct messages, and you feel numb. By calling it Empty Wind, Chinese medicine identifies the underlying cause which is deficient Blood.

You may feel this as a tingling or slight quiver in your toes or muscles which warns you that they are working up to a cramp.

‘Mending’ the Blood deficiency leads to improvement in the numbness.

Age and Cramps

Ageing brings wisdom but, often, physical woes.

One of them is that our supply of Jing gradually reduces. This means that, among other problems, our digestion becomes less efficient. With a less efficient digestion (Spleen and Stomach) we don’t make such good Blood.

 

What can you do about Leg, Foot and Calf Cramps?

For more details read the linked pages detailed above.

In general, however, keeping fit helps.

  • So taking enough food – from good sources – preparing. presenting and chewing it well in restful surroundings or company, is a first step.
Exercise can help lung dry phlegm
Exercise for Health
  • Exercise is good, because it moves Qi and Blood, Heart Qi and Liver Qi and helps to prevent Qi stagnation. When your legs spasm, as in a leg or calf cramp, Qi has stopped moving, and once you’ve released the tension, you need to move the leg to ease it. Exercising regularly keeps your leg tissues in better shape. Walking fast, daily, for half an hour or so has been tried for millennia and is still effective. The worst thing you can do is sit for hours at a desk!
  • Don’t forget exercises for strength and flexibility of your back and abdomen, which protect your core energies.
  • Passive exercise, such as regular massage, helps many, but it does not completely replace exercise, because exercise makes the whole of your body more efficient by stimulating the interaction of yin and yang, Qi and Blood.
  • Before bed make sure you are warm. Cold extremities slow the progress of Blood, meaning your legs and calves don’t get the sustenance they need.

 

Nutrition

  • Depending on a range of variables, a snack before bed may help. Nuts, such as brazils, hazels and almonds are highly concentrated foods that also contain good fats. If you aren’t allergic to them they can provide both warmth and nutrients you need, and you don’t need many (5 or 10 at most) at bed time. Or a milky drink. These help guard against Blood deficiency and if the drink is warm, against cold. The Zinc in the nuts also probably helps support Kidney Jing.
  • Continuing the theme of nutrition: bear in mind that cramps are more yang than yin, in that we want to relax (yin) the spasm (yang). We emit carbon dioxide as we exhale, replacing it with oxygen on inhalation. Oxygen is yang compared to carbon dioxide, which is comparatively yin. (Why? Because oxygen gives us life: it cheers us and raises our spirits. Too much and we become hyper.) A possible cause of cramp is yin deficiency caused by lack of carbon dioxide. So, for some, inhaling carbon dioxide for a short while may help the cramp. How? Inflate a paper bag by breathing out into it and in from it. That way you will re-inhale carbon dioxide, which may help put it back into your blood, so relaxing the cramp. This may explain why some people wake from sleep with terrible cramp, possibly caused by lack of enough movement to generate the gas in the blood stream yet breathing out what remains. (See ‘Toe uncurling’ Last Word’: New Scientist 13 April 2019 p57)
  • If you take supplements, such as of Magnesium, be sure to take a recommended mixture of substances (eg, Magnesium, D3, K2, Boron, Calcium) that work together to increase good absorption of each. Long-term, consider what I’ve written on my page on supplements.

 

Excitement

  • Don’t get excited by reading or watching thrillers before bed. For some people the emotions disrupt their Qi circulation and can, in susceptible individuals, lead to Qi and Blood stagnation.
  • See also under ‘weather’ below.

 

Light – the wrong kind

  • Don’t use computers or tablets or phones before bed. Viewing these seems to use up Liver Blood very quickly. As Liver Blood deficiency leads to calf cramps, if you use computers (or VDUs or small screens) you set yourself up for them. Another way of looking at this is to say that we are drawn to yang things like the flickering screens and the ever-changing messages on them. Too much yang exposure uses up our yin resources, one of which is Blood. Hence we get Blood (yin) deficient-caused cramp.

 

Emotions

  • Try to sort out emotional problems before going to bed. Then Qi stagnation won’t trouble you when you are trying to sleep.
  • If Stress and Emotional tensions are real problems for you, consider seeing someone for counselling – even a friend may be able to help. And you might benefit from reading my book ‘Qi Stagnation – Signs of Stress’, for links to which see side panel.

Weather

  • Some people are affected by wind. In Chinese medicine, Wind is a major cause of disease, much more important than we in ‘developed’ countries believe or accept. Sometimes a draft through a room, or windy weather, is all it takes to set off all sorts of health problems, including coughing (which is another kind of spasm) AND, in this case, cramps in your calves.
  • There’s another kind of wind too, which links back to the emotional tensions mentioned above. This occurs when an unexpected word from a partner, or some unwelcome event seems to disarray us. Its effect is like a sudden draft, as it were making a door in our mind ‘bang’. And that sets off the cramp. This kind of (usually ) sudden event acts like Wind. You may not even be aware of it at the time, but perhaps retrospective consideration will reveal it. And if  you haven’t clicked the link to Wind yet, Wind has a disproportionate effect on your Liver. Usually it’s your Liver that, in Chinese medicine, produces calf cramps.

Problems Sleeping?

Jonathan Brand colours

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve linked my caffeine intake to nocturnal calf cramping. Even one cup of green tea during the day is enough to cause cramping that night during sleep or at the point of awakening in the morning. I wish I could find a way to drink tea or coffee without the cramps but have not succeeded. Decaf (which is really only reduced caf) does not help.

    That said, I find that massaging SI-3 immediately at the onset of cramps removes them.

    BTW, great site!

    1. Hi Bruce, I’m glad you like the site – thanks!

      And thanks for your useful observation – based on personal experience – that even a small amount of caffeine causes cramps at night. I drink coffee only rarely, though I do like it, so haven’t noticed such a link, but do find that my sleep is affected, even several days afterwards. And your note about SI-3 is certainly worth knowing.

      Thanks again! Jonathan

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