Non-drug therapies for lower limb muscle cramps

Lower limb muscle cramps are a common problem that can affect any person, but cramps mostly occur during exercise, at nighttime in older people, in pregnant women, in people with a neurological disease and during kidney dialysis. Non-drug treatments are described as being effective for the treatment of muscle cramps. Non-drug treatments include muscle stretching, physical exercise, avoidance of physical fatigue, massage, relaxation, heat therapy, weight loss, sensory nerve stimulation, ankle splints worn while sleeping, and changes to sleeping and sitting positions. We did not include invasive interventions such as surgery, acupuncture or dry-needling in this review.

Only one randomised trial has assessed the effectiveness of a non-drug treatment for lower limb muscle cramp. This trial evaluated day-time calf muscle stretching to prevent nighttime muscle cramp in adults age 60 years and over who had received a repeat prescription of quinine for nighttime cramps in the preceding three months. Forty-nine participants were advised to complete lean-to-wall calf muscle stretching held for 10 s three times per day. Forty-eight participants were allocated to a placebo stretching group. After 12 weeks, there was no statistically significant difference in the frequency of cramps, as recalled by the participants, between groups. No "significant" adverse effect was reported. Owing to serious limitations in the design of the trial, it is impossible to determine from the available evidence whether or not calf muscle stretching can prevent recurrent lower limb muscle cramp.

Further research is required to determine the effectiveness of non-drug treatments for lower limb muscle cramp.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is limited evidence on which to base clinical decisions regarding the use of non-drug therapies for the treatment of lower limb muscle cramp. Serious methodological limitations in the existing evidence hinder clinical application. There is an urgent need to carefully evaluate many of the commonly recommended and emerging non-drug therapies in well designed randomised controlled trials.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

About one in every three adults are affected by lower limb muscle cramps. For some people, these cramps reduce quality of life, quality of sleep and participation in activities of daily living. Many interventions are available for lower limb cramps, but some are controversial, no treatment guidelines exist, and often people experience no benefit from the interventions prescribed.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of non-drug, non-invasive treatments for lower limb cramp.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Neuromuscular Disease Group Specialized Register (13 September 2011) using the terms: cramp, spasm, contracture, charley horse and lower limb, lower extremity, foot, calf, leg, thigh, gastrocnemius, hamstring, quadriceps. We also searched CENTRAL (2011, Issue 3), MEDLINE (January 1966 to August 2011) and EMBASE (January 1980 to August 2011) and the reference lists of included studies. There were no language or publication restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised controlled trials of non-drug, non-invasive interventions trialled over at least four weeks for the prevention of lower limb muscle cramps in any group of people. We excluded, for example, surgery, acupuncture and dry-needling, as invasive interventions. We selected only trials that included at least one of the following outcomes: cramp frequency, cramp severity, health-related quality of life, quality of sleep, participation in activities of daily living and adverse outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently selected trials, assessed risk of bias and cross checked data extraction and analysis. A third author was to arbitrate in the event of disagreement. We asked the authors of five trials for information to assist with screening studies for eligibility and received four responses.

Main results: 

One trial was eligible for inclusion.  All participants were age 60 years or over and had received a repeat prescription from their general practitioner of quinine for nighttime cramps in the preceding three months. This review includes data from only those participants who were advised to continue taking quinine. Forty-nine participants were advised to complete lean-to-wall calf muscle stretching held for 10 s three times per day. Forty-eight participants were allocated to a placebo stretching group. After 12 weeks, there was no statistically significant difference in recalled cramp frequency between groups. No "significant" adverse effect was reported. Limitations in the study's design impede interpretation of the results and clinical applicability.