Many COPD patients experience painful cramping. These cramps can occur at any time but most often they happen at night while sleeping or after sitting still for an extended period. Patients have reported that these cramps affect the rib cage area, and often the hands, legs, and feet. These cramps can be extremely painful and doctors have been unable to find specific reasons for them.
Though cramping may occur for various reasons with various people, they are sometime the result of heart damage from COPD. Some users of Symbicort and Speriva have reported that foot and leg cramps began or worsened once they began using the drugs. The cortisone in these medicines is believed to deplete magnesium which causes painful charlie horse type cramps. In these cases your doctor may prescribe a drug containing quinine to help with the cramps. Please do not take any form of quinine without direction from your doctor as it is very dangerous. In addition to the treatment that your doctor recommends, there are several measures that can be taken to alleviate this painful side effect.
Athletes used to be counseled to replace water and electrolytes to avoid cramping. Current thought is that dehydration isn’t the main cause of cramping but it still contributes. This is especially true for those with lung conditions since the lungs are more than 80% water. So drink water, juice, and sports drinks especially in the warm, summer months.
If you are on a corticosteroid that is known to deplete minerals, be sure to replace them through diet or supplements. According to a report at the Mayo Clinic, too little potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your system can cause cramping, especially of the legs and feet. All of these are available in pill form but there are tasty and healthy items you can add to your diet to replenish minerals as well.
Low levels of potassium in the blood is known as hypokalemia. Low potassium affects the contraction of muscles and heart function. Normal intake of potassium for adults is 4.7 grams per day. If you are on a prescription regimen that contributes to a potassium deficiency, speak to your doctor about how much daily potassium you should be getting. Try adding the following to your diet to increase potassium:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Tomato Sauce
- Orange Juice
There are few minerals more essential for good health than magnesium. Lack of magnesium is known as hypomagnesemia. Magnesium is required in the body for muscle and nerve function, glucose level control, regulating blood pressure, synthesizing protein, transporting calcium and potassium across cell membranes, normal heart rhythm, digesting food, and hundreds of other functions. The recommended daily allowance of magnesium for adults is 350 mg. Increase magnesium levels by eating some of the following:
- Dairy Products
- Pumpkin Seeds
Magnesium causes muscle to relax while calcium causes them to contract. In some cases, an excess of calcium can cause cramping so be sure to speak to your doctor about how much calcium they believe that you should be getting. Calcification, or hardening of tissues is especially common for people over 50. However, magnesium helps the body absorb and use calcium so if your magnesium levels are healthy, your calcium usage should be good as well. Generally 1000 mg of calcium should be sufficient. Most people drink more milk or eat cheese to add calcium but even if you’re lactose intolerant, there are plenty of foods that are chock full of calcium.
- Cottage Cheese
- Frozen Yogurt
- Fortified Cereals
- Tofu or Other Soy Products
- Bok Choi
Low Sodium Levels
Sodium works with electrolytes to control muscle contractions by triggering nerve impulses. Too much sodium levels can contribute to high blood pressure and excess water retention so be sure to speak to your doctor before increasing sodium in your diet. Ideally adults should limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day. Many who are conscious of their sodium intake do not salt their food but are unaware that the majority of sodium comes from processed or prepackaged foods.
- Many Vegetable Juices Contain Sodium
- Rehydrate with Sports Drinks
- Certain Fruit Juices Have Moderate Sodium Levels
- Canned Lemonade and Orange Juice can be Healthy Sources
- Flavored Coffees often Have Sodium Added
Pickle juice as a cramp reliever has gained popularity in the past few years. Pickle juice is made primarily of salt and vinegar. If your cramping is due to low sodium, this remedy may work for you. Vinegar is essentially acetyl acid which facilitates the production of the key neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter assists with muscle function. This may also be helpful in the short term but it can lose its effectiveness over time.
Teaspoons of Mustard
Mustard is comprised of water, vinegar, mustard seed, turmeric and salt. As such, this remedy may be effective for the same reason pickle juice is. Mustard does also contain magnesium. Spread some mustard on your sandwich at lunch time or make a yummy potato salad to combat leg cramps.
Get Sufficient Complex Carbohydrates
Many COPD patients have opted for a low carb diet in order to control their weight. This type of diet is sometimes stressful for the body as it is no longer getting the carbohydrate fuel that is was used to. Lack of carbs can also lead to loss of potassium and other minerals that we previously discussed which lead to cramps and stiffness. It can also lead to fluid loss. So in addition to taking the steps we have discussed above, you might consider adding complex carbohydrates to your diet.
- Green Peas
- Lima Beans
- Acorn Squash
- Split Peas
- Sweet Potatoes
- Brown and Wild Rice
- Whole Grain
Leg Cramp Exercises
This stretching exercise will help keep let muscles limber and decrease the chances of cramping.
- Do this before getting in to bed at night
- Stand about 3 feet away facing the wall
- Keep your feel flat on the floor while leaning on the wall and hold for five minutes
- You should feel your calf muscle stretch, if not then step further away.
If you develop a leg cramp:
- Straighten your leg
- Bend your foot upward toward your shin as far as you are able
- Hold for several seconds and repeat until cramping subsides
Avoiding Leg Cramps while Sleeping
- If you sleep on your back, use a pillow to prop up your feet
- If you sleep on your stomach, hang your feet off the edge of the bed
- Loosen sheets and blankets so that your toes won’t be pointing downward while you sleep
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature as being too cold or hot can cause cramps
A Bar of Soap
I know this sounds strange and as yet there have been no scientific studies on the matter but there is a profusion of anecdotal evidence that putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet alleviates cramping. Could it be that the magnesium or some other compound in the soap is helping? There’s no concrete evidence as to why, but millions swear by this homespun remedy. If you try this one, we’d love to hear in the comments if it worked, or not, for you.
We hope any combination of these remedies prevent painful cramps from reoccurring!