Muscle cramps and spasms can be common, but they’re also inconvenient and uncomfortable. Getting a Charley horse can be all-consuming in the moment. There are many possible triggers of cramps and spasms, including possible imbalances of certain nutrients.
In this article, you’ll learn about the causes of muscle cramps and spasms, what the scientific evidence says about vitamins that may help, and other helpful tips.
Muscle cramps and spasms can last from a few seconds to several minutes and have many possible causes. They occur when a muscle fiber, individual muscle, or group of muscles have involuntary contractions. The actual cause behind muscle cramps is not always clear.
Exercise-related muscle cramps are common, but spasms and cramps can be triggered by other things like electrolyte losses. Cramps are rarely a result of a muscle issue in one location, but can be reflective of whole-body somatic, emotional, or other triggers (like pregnancy).
The most common location where cramps or spasms occur is the calf, and legs are the area most frequently affected, regardless of age. While it’s not always possible to identify a single cause of cramps, there are some common factors relating to leg cramps.
These can include:
Since the cause of cramps and spasms can’t always be identified, a medical provider may ask about activities, fitness level, and dietary intake to get to the bottom of frequent cramping issues. Some vitamins and other nutrients may play a role in cramps, but others are less clearly understood. Here’s what the science says.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is important for bone health and immune function, but it also plays a role in healthy muscles. Taking vitamin D can’t directly affect a cramp or spasms in the moment, but supporting a healthy intake and optimal level may play a role in overall muscular health.
In menstruating people, inadequate vitamin D status has been linked to worse PMS symptoms, including cramps.
In postmenopausal people, vitamin D may play a role in maintaining healthy muscles by supporting bone strength and some thickness parameters, but the relationship does not seem to be direct. Muscle cramps and spasms can affect pelvic and bladder function, and vitamin D can support healthy bladder muscle function.
In people taking medications where muscle cramping is a common side effect, one study showed vitamin D therapy for 6 months helped to reduce discomfort from muscle cramping by 63% and increased quality of life.
Unless you live near the equator, it’s not easy to get enough vitamin D year-round from sun exposure alone. Even during optimal months, the use of sunscreen, length of time in the sun, melanin in skin, and age can all influence how well the body can make vitamin D.
If you’re not sure about your vitamin D status or intake, check with a medical provider. They can run a blood test to check your levels and recommend an intake that’s right for you. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for all adults is 15 mcg (600 IU).
Magnesium is a mineral that supports more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body. It also functions as an electrolyte. Most tissues and organs rely on adequate magnesium intake either directly or indirectly.
Magnesium plays an important role in healthy muscles. It supports normal muscle contraction all throughout the body and is needed for muscle balance. The effects of magnesium supplementation for this reason are most noted in people who have low magnesium levels, like older adults, or who have gastrointestinal factors associated with absorption challenges.
When it comes to cramping specifically, a small study of 175 adults found that after 60 days, magnesium was linked with better quality sleep and nocturnal leg comfort compared to those who received the placebo. But not all research agrees. Another study of 88 adults showed no difference in night-time leg comfort, although the study duration was only 4 weeks. In pregnant people, who tend to experience more frequent muscle discomfort and leg cramps, magnesium supplements did not reduce leg cramps when compared to placebo.
Since low magnesium levels can disrupt electrolyte balance and impact numerous energy-related cellular functions in the body, maintaining adequate intake and avoiding deficiency can play an important role in addressing muscle cramps.
Potassium is a necessary mineral that supports healthy kidneys, electrolyte balance, and cellular energy. Imbalances in potassium can have a cascade effect on other minerals including calcium and magnesium.
Potassium is frequently consumed as part of electrolyte beverages or supplements, though most people are not deficient in potassium. A small study with 9 people who were prone to cramping compared an electrolyte beverage, which included potassium, to a placebo drink. The electrolyte intake reduced the likelihood of having cramps and the discomfort involved with them, but did not fully prevent them.
There is not much research on potassium and direct effects on cramps. However, as with most nutrients, the benefits lie in supporting healthy intake and overall nutritional balance. Eating a high-salt diet and not eating foods that contain potassium can lead to low potassium levels. Foods rich in potassium include squash, prunes, raisins, potatoes, soybeans, bananas, milk, spinach, poultry, dairy products, seafood, beef, and molasses.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble nutrient that plays an important role in energy metabolism and healthy nerve cell signaling. It’s also essential for healthy iron absorption and red blood cells. B12 can be considered an important component of the body’s energy delivery system, since oxygen is transported in red blood cells.
Inadequate B12 intake or deficiency can cause a number of symptoms, from muscle loss to nerve-related symptoms and more. While B12 deficiency can affect muscle loss, taking vitamin B12 does not directly lead to muscle gains.
Vitamin B12 has not been studied for muscle cramp benefits, but because it plays a role in cellular function, DNA replication, and numerous energy transport processes, deficiencies systemically impact the body. Preventing vitamin B12 deficiency is important for heart health, the central nervous system, and more, including musculoskeletal wellness. People who are over age 60, have gastrointestinal conditions, or follow a vegan or vegetarian diet may be at greater risk for inadequate intake or absorption.
Thiamin, or vitamin B1, is crucial for energy metabolism and cell signaling. It’s also an important cofactor that allows the body to metabolize protein, fats, and carbohydrates into usable energy.
Thiamin supports healthy neuromuscular interactions, including cramping and involuntary contractions. In a study that looked at the effectiveness of vitamin B1 for PMS symptoms, it reduced physical symptoms like uterine cramping by 21% when compared to baseline. The group that received B1 also had fewer symptoms than the placebo group.
Like most vitamins, the body functions best when it receives a regular intake. Thiamin is found in many foods, including fortified cereals, black beans, seafood, pork, squash, rice, and more. Most people get enough, but thiamin is also typically included in B-complex vitamins and multivitamin supplements.
Electrolytes help conduct electrical activity in the body that helps cells perform basic functions. Electrolytes are needed for fluid balance, muscle contraction, nerve signaling, and more.
Electrolytes can be lost through sweat from heat or exercise, as well as from diarrhea or vomiting. Sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are all electrolyte nutrients that are needed in balance to perform their various functions. Adequate fluid intake is also needed for electrolytes to work.
The association between cramping and electrolytes is not clear. In a study that looked at the effects of dehydration and electrolytes on leg cramping, the researchers found that neuromuscular fatigue, not dehydration or electrolyte losses, was associated with cramps in athletes. The study was small and couldn’t rule out the possibility of fluid losses and electrolyte imbalances also playing a role, but there is no direct evidence that electrolyte supplements will definitely help with cramps or spasms.
Coenzyme Q10 (coQ10 for short) is a molecule that has antioxidant-like activity in the body. It is thought to support cellular energy and metabolic processes, although the direct benefits from coQ10 supplements are less clear. Supplements can raise blood levels of coQ10, but scientists are still not sure if that means the body can use it directly.
A meta-analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials found that compared to placebo, coQ10 supplements helped alleviate muscle discomfort that was caused by a medication side effect. The coenzyme Q10 supplements helped reduce cramping, weakness, and muscular fatigue. A study of 60 people found that coQ10 helped decrease the frequency and intensity of muscle discomfort caused by medication side effects, while the placebo group had no changes. Larger studies are needed to confirm the results.
Calcium is an important mineral for bone health, but it’s also needed for muscular health, too. However, a direct impact of calcium on leg cramps is harder to establish. It’s most likely that adequate intake of calcium is necessary to maintain muscle and bone homeostasis. However, such calcium intake alone isn’t a reliable intervention for cramps.
A Cochrane review looked at several studies testing interventions for addressing leg cramps in pregnancy. Some studies showed that calcium had no effect on cramps, while others with low-quality evidence showed that leg cramps could be slightly lower after calcium intake. Studies that looked at calcium paired with vitamin D showed no significant changes to leg cramps, but many of the studies in the review were small or had a short duration. Larger studies are needed to understand if there’s a more clear link between calcium and leg cramps.
Muscle cramps and spasms, whether they’re in the legs or elsewhere, can be uncomfortable or distracting. It’s not always possible to prevent them, but two potential strategies include:
If you experience discomfort cramping or spasms that are frequent or affect your quality of life, work with your healthcare provider to determine potential causes and effective solutions.
Cramps and spasms are common, but what causes them is still not fully known. Some vitamins and minerals play important roles in muscle health, but in many cases, they can’t directly affect or prevent cramps. A healthy diet that is rich in nutrients is a foundational part of wellness. Supplements can bridge gaps in certain vitamin or mineral intakes, but can’t replace healthy foods.
If you experience cramps, you may find relief through simple lifestyle supports like stretching or massage, along with a healthy dietary and nutrient intake. Hydration, sleep, and stress management are all important for overall health, too.