How Do I Tell the Difference Between a Cramp and a Blood Clot in the Leg?

Written By Center for Vein Restoration
sudden muscle pain

Learn to determine the difference between a cramp and a blood clot in the leg. It could save your life.

Everyone experiences an occasional leg cramp. Your calf muscle suddenly seizes, and you feel a sharp pain. But did you know that a leg cramp can also indicate a blood clot, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT), in the calf? A blood clot, if left unaddressed, can turn deadly. So how do you distinguish between a cramp and a blood clot in the leg to avoid a life-threatening situation?

Leg cramps vs. blood clots

A leg cramp, commonly called a charley horse, can develop suddenly. But in most cases, it lasts for a few seconds before going away on its own. Leg cramps typically result from dehydration, tired muscles, and low levels of potassium and magnesium in the body. Nerve damage and chronic conditions such as kidney disease can also cause leg cramps. Yet sometimes, there may be no reason for a leg cramp. This condition is called gastrocnemius.

Leg cramps and DVT share one possible cause: venous insufficiency or sluggish circulation in the leg veins. When blood doesn't run smoothly through your veins, it pools and can cause your leg to ache. Poor circulation also allows the blood cells to stick together and form a clot, which can lead to a leg cramp. People with venous insufficiency and varicose veins frequently experience leg cramps, especially at night.

Given that a blood clot often results from poor circulation, it’s also likely to form with a sedentary lifestyle and during prolonged periods of inactivity, such as extended bed rest after surgery or a long plane ride. Pregnant women and women on hormone replacement therapy are also at higher risk of blood clots.

How to tell the difference between a blood clot and a leg cramp

The primary symptom of a clot and cramp is a painful calf. But that’s typically where the similarity ends. To tell the difference between the two, look for these distinctions:

Duration. A leg cramp typically doesn’t last too long. It may fade in seconds or minutes. The pain from a blood clot persists much longer.

Swelling. Leg cramps aren’t usually accompanied by leg swelling, but a blood clot in the lower leg will cause noticeable swelling.

Other symptoms. A leg cramp causes pain but not much else. However, the area around a blood clot will feel warm, and the skin may look reddish.

What to do if you think you have a blood clot

Never ignore blood clot symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DVT strikes about 900,000 Americans yearly, with 100,000 dying suddenly from a clot. If the clot breaks away and travels to the lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism (PE). Shortness of breath, bloody cough, chest pain, and dizziness signal a PE, which must be treated immediately in an emergency room.

If you suspect a blood clot, see a certified vascular specialist at your earliest convenience. An ultrasound of the leg veins can locate a blood clot before it turns deadly. Treatment involves using blood thinners and, if needed, clot-busting drugs. Blood clots can be successfully remedied, but you must know how to identify the signs early enough to get the necessary treatment.

Is it a cramp or a clot? Center for Vein Restoration can help!

Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) has offices nationwide, all staffed with board-certified physicians with years of experience treating vascular disorders, including blood clots. Talk to a CVR physician if you’re experiencing leg pain and other symptoms of DVT or vein disease. We can explore treatment options with you to prevent further complications.

Contact your nearest CVR location today to schedule a consultation or speak to a representative. You may also schedule online at your convenience.

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