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What Can You Do About Leg Cramps?

Most of us don't think much about our blood vessels, the vast circulatory system that carries oxygen and nutrients via our blood throughout our bodies. But when we haven't been taking the proper care of ourselves, our bodies have a way of letting us know that things are not right, and that includes some very clear messages related to those blood vessels.

Circulating blood through our legs and feet is one of the most difficult tasks of our circulatory system. It's not only a long way from the heart to our toes, but it's an even more difficult journey back as our blood has to overcome both distance and gravity to return to the lungs and heart and begin its work all over again.

The arteries in our legs carry the fresh, oxygenated blood down to the capillaries, the tiny blood vessels where the nutrients and oxygen our blood is transporting are able to move into the muscle tissue and provide them with the tools needed to do their work. At the same time, that blood flow is picking up the waste products that our working muscles have produced and moving up to the organs, such as the liver and kidneys, where the blood can be cleaned and those waste products removed.

Hardening Of The Arteries

Our circulatory system is wonderful when all is working well, but as we age, and especially when our lifestyles negatively affect our health, problems can occur. One of the most common is when our arteries, which normally have an elastic quality, begin to deteriorate and lose that elasticity. Such deterioration can allow calcium deposits to build up, resulting in arteriosclerosis obliterans, or what most of us know as hardening of the arteries.

When hardening of the arteries occurs it means the artery is no longer able to expand as it once could, and that the flow of blood through the artery is thus restricted. This problem is most noticeable during physical activity when the muscles of your legs and feet need more blood in order to receive additional oxygen and to send away waste products resulting from the work they are doing.

A common effect of reduced blood flow in our leg arteries is the occurrence of pain, spasms and cramps in the muscles of your legs and feet. These cramps can be an indication of advancing arteriosclerosis when they limit even simple activities, such as taking a walk. As you walk you may experience cramps, commonly called "charley horses," that can become quite painful and force you to stop walking.

These cramps are the result of that limited blood flow. In effect, it is your leg muscles' way of complaining that they are receiving too little fresh oxygen and new nutrients, and that they are unable to keep on working because they are filled with waste products from the work they've done already. When the pain causes you to stop walking and rest, however, the limited blood flow is then able to catch up, take away the excess waste products, and thus allow the pain to go away and your exercise to continue.

Eating Right To Fight Arteriosclerosis

While overcoming a problem such as hardening of the arteries can take time and be difficult to achieve, it can be done. An important first step is making sure your diet is a healthy one. Fatty deposits in your arteries may be one cause of arteriosclerosis. Changing your diet to one that is low in fat and cholesterol can help to keep this condition from worsening and may, according to some research, even help reverse the condition.

There are numerous books and articles that have been published with advice on making effective changes for a lower fat diet to help fight arteriosclerosis. Probably the best known and one of the most reliable names in the field is cardiac researcher Dr. Dean Ornish. While, the emphasis for most health experts in this area is of course, heart disease, rather than leg cramps, the basic problem of hardening of the arteries is the same in both conditions, and the dietary changes that can mean better heart and overall health are the same ones that help reduce or eliminate the conditions leading to leg cramps.

Exercise And Improved Blood Flow

Another important change to make is to increase your level of physical activity. In many cases, not exercising has often played a big role in the development of circulatory problems. When you exercise, you cause more blood to flow into the legs and feet, forcing the arteries to open and close and thus regain some of their former elasticity.

The difficult part, of course, is that even moderate amounts of exercise may be painful and can cause cramps. When that happens, rest as necessary to let the pain subside, but don't give up on exercising. Over time, if you stick with a program of sensible, appropriate exercise, you will find that the cramps and pain that occur tend to be less severe, or may eventually disappear.

If hardening of the arteries is a cause of the leg cramps that you are experiencing, developing a sensible, safe exercise program is often the most effect change that can be made to treat the condition.

Talk To Your Physician

While good nutrition and appropriate exercise can be extremely helpful in overcoming leg cramps and spasms, it is important to remember that such conditions can be indications of a variety of serious health problems. If leg cramps are occurring both when you are sleeping and awake, and are serious and painful enough to limit your activities, be sure to discuss the problem with your physician. He or she can provide a clear diagnosis of what is causing the problem, and should be able to offer advice on what you can do to overcome the condition.

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