Nocturnal leg cramps: Prevalence and associations with demographics, sleep disturbance symptoms, medical conditions, and cardiometabolic risk factors

PLoS One. 2017 Jun 6;12(6):e0178465. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178465. eCollection 2017.


Background: Nocturnal leg cramps (NLC) are common and poorly understood.

Objective: To determine the prevalence of NLC and associations with cardiometabolic, sleep, and behavioral risk factors in the US population.

Design: Cross-sectional epidemiology.

Participants: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-2006 and 2007-2008 waves.

Main outcome(s) and measure(s): NLC were assessed with, "In the past month, how often did you have leg cramps while trying to sleep?" Responses were categorized as None, Mild, or Moderate-Severe. Demographics, medical history, sleep disturbances, and cardiometabolic risk factors were evaluated using the 2005-2006 dataset. Variables that demonstrated significant relationships to NLC after adjusting for age, sex, education, and BMI were assessed in the 2007-2008 dataset. Variables that were still significant were entered into a forward stepwise regression model combining both waves, to determine which variables best explained the variance in NLC.

Results: Prevalence was 24-25% reporting mild and 6% reporting moderate-severe NLC. NLC increased with age, lower education, unemployment, shorter sleep duration, all assessed sleep symptoms (nocturnal "leg jerks", snoring, snorting/gasping, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, non-restorative sleep, sleepiness, use of sleep medications), higher BMI, smoking, medical history (hypertension, heart failure, angina, stroke, arthritis, respiratory disease, and cancer), depression symptoms, and biomarkers (CRP, HbA1c, calcium, cadmium, red blood cells). Stepwise analysis showed that moderate-severe nocturnal leg cramps were associated with (in decreasing order of partial R2): leg jerks, poor overall health, arthritis, difficulty falling asleep, age, nonrestorative sleep, red blood cell count, lower education, angina, and difficulty maintaining sleep.

Conclusions and relevance: Based on this first large, representative study, NLC occurring >5x per month are reported by 6% of the adult US population. Sleep disturbance symptoms and health conditions are associated with higher frequency of NLC, suggesting that NLC is a marker, and possibly contributor, to poor sleep and general health.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Arthritis / blood
  • Arthritis / complications
  • Arthritis / epidemiology
  • Arthritis / physiopathology
  • Blood Cell Count
  • Female
  • Heart Failure / blood
  • Heart Failure / complications
  • Heart Failure / epidemiology*
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / blood
  • Hypertension / complications
  • Hypertension / epidemiology*
  • Hypertension / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Risk Factors
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / blood
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / complications
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / physiopathology
  • Sleep-Wake Transition Disorders / blood
  • Sleep-Wake Transition Disorders / complications
  • Sleep-Wake Transition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Sleep-Wake Transition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Snoring / epidemiology
  • Snoring / physiopathology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States / epidemiology

Grant support

This work received support from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Grant number: K23HL110216, URL: Author who received funding: MG. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.