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Health Answers

Do calcium supplements help with frequent leg cramps in seniors?

By Courtney Humphries
January 10, 2011

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Q. Do calcium supplements help with frequent leg cramps in seniors?

A. Although not dangerous, a sudden leg cramp, sometimes called a charley horse, can be a painful presence in the middle of the night. Cramps are involuntary muscle spasms caused by firing of the nerves that stimulate the muscle. Although the occasional cramp is a common experience, a few conditions can promote cramping, including pregnancy, rapid salt and water loss, thyroid deficiency, or nerve disease. For unknown reasons, leg cramps also can become more frequent with age.

Unfortunately, says Dr. Robert Layzer, a neurologist at University of California San Francisco Medical Center, “treating cramps is a huge area of mythology.’’ Although there are many touted remedies, few rigorous studies have examined the efficacy of different treatments. The malaria drug quinine sulfate has been found to offer a modest benefit, but the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in 2006 against the off-label use of the drug for cramps because of rare but potentially dangerous side effects.

Although preventing cramps is tricky, treating them isn’t. When you find your calf cramping, Layzer says, “take hold of the foot and toes and pull them back. It will stop the cramp, and it’s very cheap.’’