Leg Cramps in Children

Like adults, children too tend to have leg cramps. These are also called “charley horses”, especially when the muscles spasm follows prolonged exercise. This term is derived from popular American slang for painful cramps in the lower limbs, usually involving the quadriceps and calf muscles.

The Main Causes

Children are usually very active and often do not know the limits and risks of prolonged and strenuous physical exercise or activity. This is the commonest cause of leg cramps in children. There is excessive build up of certain chemicals like lactic acid in the skeletal muscles of the thigh and the calf. This causes what is called in medical terminology, ERMC (exercise related muscle cramps). These can last from a few seconds up till a few minutes. Recent studies suggest that rather than the build up of chemicals in the muscle, cramps are the result of central nervous system fatigue. We all know that the brain via the spinal cord and the nerves extending from here, control the skeletal muscles (muscles of the limbs). Normally, there is always a mechanism of feedback whereby the skeletal muscles are inhibited from becoming overactive during muscle contraction. Prolonged exercise is believed to alter this inhibitory system resulting in hyperactive muscles and consequent muscle cramps. Perhaps it is both of these mechanisms (accumulation of harmful substances and loss of inhibition) that cause painful spasms of muscles. In addition, children (and indeed adults also) often sit or stand in awkward postures for extended periods of time precipitating muscle cramps. Other factors include improper footwear and obesity. Obesity is now becoming an increasingly common factor in both adults and in children. This has a lot to do with current lifestyles with emphasis on fast food and long hours of television viewing. Other causes of cramps in children include electrolyte imbalances, specifically potassium and magnesium deficiency. Exercise can also cause dehydration with loss of electrolytes and fluids in sweat, resulting in cramps. More ominously, serious illnesses like leukemia can also cause painful cramps in children. A pinched nerve due to awkward positions while sleeping can also cause cramps.

Treatment of Cramps in Children

If cramps are caused by painful contractions of the affected muscles, the remedy lies in stretching the muscle. Thus, the first thing to be done if a child suffers from spasms of the calf muscles is this: gently hold the toes and bend the foot from the ankle, upwards and towards the shin of the leg, thus stretching the calf muscles. Hold this position for some time till the cramps subside. The other remedy is to gently massage the affected calf muscles preferably with warm water or oils. One might also use one of the many medicated pain relieving creams or ointments, available over the counter at a pharmacy. Other things that can help include taking preventive measures like increasing the dietary consumption of green vegetables and fruits to supply sufficient electrolytes and vitamins. Also, it is important to rest after exercise, and to gradually increase the capacity for exercise. Proper hydration is also very important.