Criteria in diagnosing nocturnal leg cramps: a systematic review

Joannes Hallegraeff, Mathieu de Greef, Wim Krijnen, Cees van der Schans

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Up to 33% of the general population over 50 years of age are affected by nocturnal leg cramps. Currently there are no generally accepted clinical characteristics, which identify nocturnal leg cramps. This study aims to identify these clinical characteristics and to differentiate between them and the characteristics of restless leg syndrome and periodic limb disorder.

METHOD: A systematic literature study was executed from December 2015 to May 2016. This study comprised of a systematic literature review of randomized clinical trials, observational studies on nocturnal and rest cramps of legs and other muscles, and other systematic and narrative reviews. Two researchers independently extracted literature data and analyzed this using a standardized reviewing protocol. Modified versions of the Cochrane Collaboration tools assessed the risk of bias. A Delphi study was conducted to assess agreement on the characteristics of nocturnal leg cramps.

RESULTS: After systematic and manual searches, eight randomized trials and ten observational studies were included. On the basis of these we identified seven diagnostic characteristics of nocturnal leg cramps: intense pain, period of duration from seconds to maximum 10 minutes, location in calf or foot, location seldom in thigh or hamstrings, persistent subsequent pain, sleep disruption and distress.

CONCLUSION: The seven above characteristics will enhance recognition of the condition, and help clinicians make a clear distinction between NLC and other sleep-related musculoskeletal disorder among older adults.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Family Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2017


  • elderly people
  • muscle cramps
  • restless legs syndrome
  • sleep-wake transition disorders


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