Nocturnal leg cramps are extremely painful. Unfortunately, most treatments are totally ineffective. Learn more about how medical cannabis can help.
There’s a variety of reasons why people get nocturnal leg cramps. And, the causes aren’t fully understood.
It’s known that the actual cramp is the result of the repetitive firing of motor neurons in the muscle tissue. What prompts that to happen while you sleep is unknown.
The range of possible causes is wide.
Serious disorders such as peripheral artery disease can cause leg cramps, especially at night.
So, too, can metabolic issues such as:
Sometimes, medications or medical procedures can cause nocturnal leg cramps. Examples include:
You can also experience leg cramps when you’re dehydrated or have an electrolyte imbalance. Muscle fatigue, nerve damage, and pregnancy are other possible causes.
Authors of the 2010 study: “Weakness, myalgias, disorders of movement” have a theory about the source of night leg cramps. They suggest it’s hyperactive, involuntary nerve discharge from lower motor neurons.
Other research scientists hypothesize that a sedentary lifestyle is the culprit. The theory is that a lack repetitive squatting prevents frequent and necessary stretching of leg tendons and muscles.
Another theory: extended plantar flexion (pointing of toes) during sleep causes calf muscles to cramp.
Because there is no definitive cause for nocturnal leg cramps, the medical community considers them to be an idiosyncratic condition.
Gentle stretching and massage can often reduce the most dramatic pain in the moment. But it doesn’t always work and it doesn’t prevent recurrence.
Despite years of effort, there isn’t a pharmaceutical remedy effective in treating or preventing night leg cramps. Most include high levels of vitamin E or soma compounds such as muscle relaxants combined with aspirin.
There are some popular holistic treatments. Most common are powdered horse chestnut and blue cohosh. Neither has been proven safe and effective in clinical research.
For years, naturopathic and western doctors alike prescribed quinine for nocturnal leg cramps. In 2010, the FDA issued a warning against this practice. They found a high risk of life-threatening blood reactions and the practice stopped.
Some people find temporary relief with NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Tylenol and Advil. Potassium, calcium, and magnesium supplements are also popular. But results from these options are inconsistent. People self-report that they work one night but not the next.
Cannabis has long been used to treat all kinds of muscle spasms. Research into the effects of cannabis on chronic and debilitating conditions that affect muscle (e.g. multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease) shows that it can also be effective at managing night leg cramps.
What makes cannabis effective at treating and/or preventing nocturnal leg cramps? The presence of cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are natural compounds that react with specific receptors found throughout the body. There are more than 100 cannabinoids found in Cannabis sativa, the Latin name for cannabis or hemp.
The two most well-known and well-researched cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Others often cited on medical cannabis labels are CBC (cannabichromene) and CBN (cannabinol).
Each cannabinoid has unique properties. Many times the ratio of CBD to other cannabinoids can enhance or moderate the dominant effects of the various strains of cannabis.
For example, CBD tempers the psychoactive properties of THC. In other words, greater ratios of CBD to THC will produce a more moderate “high” produced by a strain of cannabis with THC.
Not all cannabis has THC. Most strains used for medical marijuana products do not and, so, don’t make the user high. These varieties of cannabis are often called hemp to distinguish them from those with psychoactive properties.
CBD does not have psychoactive properties and by itself can’t make a person high.
In this article, we focus on how and why CBD can be effective at relieving the pain and disruption of nocturnal leg cramps.
In simple terms, CBD stimulates the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is a collection of receptors distributed throughout the body. There are two kinds of receptors: CB1 (Cannabinoid Receptor 1) and CB2 (Cannabinoid Receptor 2).
Most of the receptors of CB1 are in the nervous central system. The receptors of CB2 are abundant in the gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. There are also CB2 receptors on cells that facilitate the immune system.
Think of CB1 and CB2 receptors as locks. With the right key, they can be activated. Cannabinoids are the keys that can create chemical actions called cannabidiol effects.
CBD is a key that can unlock metabolic and chemical processes that inhibit pain receptors, reduce inflammation and promote restful sleep.
When ingested, CBD attaches to receptors that help direct the body’s nervous system and brain function. Through the nervous system’s neurotransmitters, the brain receives signals it interprets as stress and/or pain.
Clinical research has proven that CBD attaches to specific receptors can modify those pain signals and help regulate anxiety levels.
It can also be an anti-inflammatory agent. This is valuable to those experiencing nocturnal leg cramps because inflammation can create muscle spasms.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of clinical research into the effects of cannabis on inflammation and neurological pain. Many of those studies involve patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) so also address the issue of muscle spasms.
Through various studies and clinical research, there’s evidence that THC can promote muscle relaxation and slow the transmission of pain signals. It’s also well documented that CBD can relieve the pain of muscle spasms and many times prevent re-occurrence.
In research supported by the American Academy of Neurology, it was shown that THC alone can reduce the frequency of muscle spasms. Yet, the anxiety, cognitive impairment, and dysphoria (unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) that THC can cause lowered its practical value.
But when THC and CBD are ingested together, the results are better. Because THC attaches primarily to CB1 receptors and CBD attaches to CB2 receptors, muscles are prevented from misfiring via the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The result is more balanced and moderate than if only one system was affected.
For this reason, the varieties of cannabis with near even ratios of CBD to THC are best for eliminating nocturnal leg cramps, according to anecdotal reports.
There are no standard doses for treating night leg cramps with cannabis.
Like any medication, personal attributes such as body mass and sensitivity to active properties affect dose.
Some people are comfortable with self-identification of dose size and frequency. It’s a process of trial and error and should always start with small amounts until you understand how your body reacts.
Because there is an ever-growing range of cannabis products available for treating muscle spasms and pain, many people welcome guidance.
Reputable sources of medical cannabis have staff that include doctors and cannabis experts. They can help you find the productto help address your specific concern about leg cramps and/or other physical or mental health issues.
Like anything we put in our body, including food, each person can have a negative reaction. It can be minor (e.g. not liking the taste) to significant (e.g. disruption to a vital organ).
Thankfully, the vast majority of people, the potential side effects of medical cannabis or mild to none. When you buy a product from a reputable provider, they will advise you of the most common side effects.
Side effects will also vary depending on the balance of THC and CBD.
Common side effects include:
Always make sure you understand the potential side effects before taking any medication, including medical cannabis.
As medical cannabis grows in popularity and acceptance by the medical establishment, it becomes easy to find.
Some U.S. states have storefront dispensaries for in-store and on-line purchases. There are also reputable providers that only sell on-line. Providers are well-aware of restrictions or prescription requirements in force where you live.
To learn more about medical cannabis and the range of health issues it can address, check out our ever-growing collection of articles and videos.