Unknotting night-time muscle cramp: a survey of patient experience, help-seeking behaviour and perceived treatment effectiveness

J Foot Ankle Res. 2012 Mar 15;5:7. doi: 10.1186/1757-1146-5-7.


Background: Night-time calf cramping affects approximately 1 in 3 adults. The aim of this study was to explore the experience of night-time calf cramp; if and where people seek treatment advice; and perceived treatment effectiveness.

Methods: 80 adults who experienced night-time calf cramp at least once per week were recruited from the Hunter region, NSW, Australia through newspaper, radio and television advertisements. All participants completed a pilot-tested survey about muscle cramp. Quantitative data were analysed with independent-sample t-tests, Chi square tests and Fisher's tests. Qualitative data were transcribed and sorted into categories to identify themes.

Results: Median recalled age of first night-time calf cramp was 50 years. Most participants recalled being awoken from sleep by cramping, and experiencing cramping of either calf muscle, calf-muscle soreness in the days following cramp and cramping during day-time. Despite current therapies, mean usual pain intensity was 66 mm on a 100 mm visual analogue scale. Participants described their cramps as being 'unbearable', 'unmanageable' and 'cruel'. One participant stated that 'sometimes I just wish I could cut my legs open' and another reported 'getting about 2 h sleep a night due to cramps'. Most participants had sought advice about their night-time calf cramps from a health professional. Participants identified 49 different interventions used to prevent night-time calf cramp. Of all treatment ratings, 68% described the intervention used to prevent cramp as being 'useless' or of 'a little help'. Of 14 participants who provided additional information regarding their use of quinine, eight had a current prescription of quinine for muscle cramp at the time of the survey. None had been asked by their prescribing doctor to stop using quinine.

Conclusion: Night time calf cramps typically woke sufferers from sleep, affected either leg and caused ongoing pain. Most participants experienced little or no relief with current therapies used to prevent muscle cramp. Most people who were taking quinine for muscle cramp were unaware that the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration withdrew support of quinine for muscle cramp in 2004 due to the risk of thrombocytopaenia. Case-control studies are required to identify therapeutic targets so that clinical trials can evaluate safe interventions to prevent recurrent cramp.