We don't know what causes the painful leg cramps that wake us from sleep. The cramps could be triggered by overexertion such as strenuous exercising or doing an unusual amount of walking, crossing your legs while sitting or sitting in an awkward position, standing for a long time on a concrete floor, dehydration or disorders such as diabetes, anemia or thyroid problems. Women may experience nighttime leg cramps if they usually wear flat-heeled shoes and switch to high heels.
Quinine has been used as an effective relief for leg cramps for many years. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve its use for that purpose. Quinine is approved by the FDA only for the treatment of malaria.
For many years, over the counter pills such as Legatrin, containing quinine sulfate, were marketed for relief of leg cramps. In 1994 the FDA ordered these pills removed from drug store and supermarket shelves because quinine was not approved for such treatment. Despite the ban, doctors continued to prescribe quinine for leg cramps until 2006 when the FDA cracked down, approving one brand of quinine only for treatment of malaria.
A homeopathic remedy called Leg Cramps with Quinine, produced by Hyland’s, is now available without a prescription in drug stores and in some health product catalogs and health food stores. The pills contain quinine (cinchona officinalis) and are regulated by the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States.
Homeopathic remedies are small, diluted quantities of substances that are used to stimulate the body’s own healing process.
A quick remedy for nighttime leg and foot cramps is a glass of tonic water, also called quinine water. It is the beverage used in gin and tonic or vodka and tonic drinks and is available in any supermarket. Anyone who is subject to frequent leg cramps might wish to keep a bottle in the refrigerator. Tonic water is more easily accessible, and possibly quicker and safer, than pills.
The amount of quinine in the beverage is not large enough to be dangerous. It is the last ingredient listed on a bottle of diet quinine water, following carbonated water, citric acid, sodium benzoate and sodium saccharin, which means the amount of quinine is smaller than any of those ingredients.
Because it is not approved by the FDA as a treatment for leg cramps, quinine should be used with caution. Side effects could include headache, nausea, ringing in the ears, rash and dizziness.