If you’ve ever been awakened in the night with shooting pain, had to stop a workout due to a tight pain in your leg, or experienced a random charley horse that causes you to double over in pain, then you are familiar with muscle cramps. These are painful contractions of the muscles that come on suddenly and involuntarily. While medically harmless in most situations, muscle cramps can not only be agonizing, they can also make it impossible to use the affected muscle temporarily.
Most often, muscle cramps develop in the calf muscles. Some medications have been known to cause cramping, but usually it is a result of long periods of exertion, especially during hot temperatures. For this reason, athletes are quite familiar with muscles cramps. Football, track, cycling, and similar sports are rife with participants who suffer from the tight, hard lump of muscle tissue and sudden, sharp pain associated with cramping.
Five Main Causes and Cures of Muscle Cramps
While athletes tend to experience muscle cramps more often than the average citizen, they aren’t the only ones to feel the pain of cramping. Anyone can find themselves frozen with a cramp, and there are many things that cause them. Here are the main five causes of muscle cramps along with the cures to fix or prevent them from occurring.
Whether you are pushing yourself to beat your last time across the finish line or trying to lift another set of weights, you may be setting yourself up for a muscle cramp. Rushing too quickly through your workout without resting properly between sets will not allow your muscles time to recover, and pushing your body beyond its limits by doing too much too quickly will cause stress on your muscles. In both cases, the result will be a muscle spasm.
Know your limits and give yourself a substantial amount of time to rest between sets. Slowly increase your speed over time to meet your end goal rather than trying to achieve it overnight. When doing a high number of reps, try massaging the target muscle group between each set.
Cause: Not stretching or warming up
From the early days of Physical Education, even back in Kindergarten, teachers and coaches have iterated the importance of stretching and warming up before any fitness routine. However, far too often, people try to rush into their workout without limbering up properly. This is a dangerous practice, regardless of whether one is running late or in a hurry. Warming up loosens the muscles and prepares them for more rigorous activities. Skipping this essential part of a workout not only could cause muscle cramps, it puts an individual at risk for a muscle tear or other injuries to occur.
The cure for this is simple. Always, always, always warm up and stretch prior to any physical activity. Even if it means cutting the workout time to fit in stretches, they are too important to skip. The purpose of a warm up is to get the blood pumping to ensure proper circulation, not to tire the muscles out.
Cause: Nutrient deficiencies
Certain nutrients, particularly potassium, are essential in preventing muscle cramps. Other important electrolyte minerals which affect muscle activity are sodium, magnesium, and calcium. When the body is low in one or more of these nutrients, cramping may occur during exercise.
Ensure that you are eating a proper diet and consuming ample foods that are high in these essential nutrients. Consider taking a multi-vitamin once per day to fill in any gaps in your diet. Foods high in potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium are:
- Potassium – bananas, beans, dark leafy greens, potatoes, squash, yogurt, fish, avocados, and mushrooms
- Sodium – smoked, cured, salted, or canned meat, fish, or poultry including bacon, ham, sardines, and sausage; frozen, breaded meats and dinners including burritos and pizza; canned entrees including ravioli and chili; salted nuts; canned beans with salt
- Magnesium – dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, yogurt, bananas, dried fruit, and dark chocolate
- Calcium – dark leafy greens, cheese, low-fat milk and yogurt, bok choy, fortified tofu, okra, broccoli, green beans, almonds, and fish canned with bones
A large percentage of the muscle tissue consists of water, so dehydration can lead to cramping. Also, in some individuals, low levels of water in the body can cause salt levels to drop as well, which also triggers muscle cramps.
Drinking a generous amount of water daily is essential to good health, even without losing water through perspiration when exercising. However, when a workout is planned, water should be consumed throughout the entire day, not just before exercising. If properly hydrated, one’s urine will be clear or near clear. Dark colored urine is a sure sign of dehydration. Be sure to drink water or Gatorade rather than sodas or coffee, which will cause dehydration.
Overheating is probably the most common cause of muscle cramping. During the summer months in particular, the body temperature can rise high quickly and at a rate above that which it can cool down. When muscles begin to overheat, they are more prone to seize, causing painful cramping.
When temperatures are on the rise, drinking plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration is especially critical. Make a conscious attempt to drink more water in the summer months. When planning a workout, take note if it is hot and humid and make adjustments to the routine. Slow down in order to prevent overheating from excessive heat.
Types of Muscle Cramps
Sometimes the reason for muscle cramping is unknown. This is called idiopathic cramping. Other times, the cause is known or from an underlying condition. This is called secondary cramping.
Even when muscle cramps do not have any known explanation, there are still scientific theories about what causes them. Some possible reasons are:
Idiopathic Muscle Cramps
- Excessive strain during exercise
- Abnormal nerve activity during sleep
- An abrupt restriction of blood flow
Additionally, older individuals may experience muscle cramps due to shortened tendons, particularly in the legs. Aging causes the tendons, which are tough tissues bands connecting the muscles to bone, to shrink. When this occurs, the affected muscles may cramp.
Muscle cramps that are caused by another condition or some other identifiable reason are common. Some possible situations that may cause or result in cramps, beyond exercise, include:
- Neurological conditions – Motor neurone disease, peripheral neuropathy, or other conditions that affect the nerves of the muscles
- Liver disease – Toxin build-up in the muscles associated with the liver’s inability to function properly
- Infection – Bacterial infection, such as tetanus
- Toxins – High levels of poisonous substances in the body, such as lead or mercury
- Inadequate blood supply – A narrowing of the blood supply (arteriosclerosis of the extremities), particularly during exercise
- Nerve compression – A compression of the nerves in the spine, known as lumbar stenosis, in which pain worsens with extended walking and is improved or delayed when walking in a flexed position, such as when pushing a shopping cart
Other secondary causes of muscle cramps include, as mentioned, exercise, dehydration, and nutrient depletion. In certain people, some medications can also cause secondary cramps. Medicines that are known to cause cramps include:
- Diuretics – Medicines that remove fluid from the body to tread conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, and kidney disease
- Statins – This prescription medication treats people with high cholesterol levels in their blood
- Raloxifene – This is used to treat osteoporosis, particularly in women who have gone through menopause
- Nifedipine – Medicine that is prescribed for angina and Raynaud’s phenomenon
- Nicotinic acid – This medicine treats high cholesterol
In most cases, muscle cramps disappear quickly and without further treatment. However, sometimes they are serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. Get medical care for medical cramps if they:
When to See a Doctor
- Are extremely uncomfortable or painful
- Occur in conjunction with swelling of the leg, redness in the affected area, or skin changes
- Cause weakening of the muscles
- Occur consistently
- Seem to be triggered by a particular activity, food, or medicine
- Aren’t associated with a particular cause, such as exercise
- Do not improve with self-treatment
If you take one of the above medications or suspect that your medicine may be the cause of muscle cramping, contact a medical provider as soon as possible to make an appointment. The dosage may need to be adjusted or it may be possible to substitute it for a different medicine altogether. Never stop taking a prescribed medicine without consulting a qualified healthcare professional who has a complete understanding of your current prescriptions and medical history.
Certain people are more prone to painful muscle cramps, particularly when certain considerations are taken into account. Risk factors that increase the possibility of cramping include:
- Age – Since muscle mass diminishes as the body ages, the muscles of older individuals become overworked more easily.
- Pregnancy – Carrying the extra weight of the baby, particularly if the mother has gained excessive weight during her pregnancy, can cause leg muscles to cramp.
- Professional athletes – A professional athlete is more likely to push the limits, become fatigued, or develop dehydration.
- Medical disorders – Individuals with certain medical conditions are prone to cramps, including diabetes or nerve, thyroid, or liver disorders.
Self-care is the most common treatment for muscle cramps. When a cramp occurs, stretching the muscle and gently rubbing it is the best course of action. If the muscle is in the calf, it is recommended to put weight on the affected leg and then slightly bend at the knee. If the pain makes it impossible to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair and extend the cramped leg.
Another option is to lift the pained leg while keeping the knee locked and leg straight. It will help to ease cramps that are in the calf or in the back of the thigh, or hamstring. If the muscle cramp is in the front of the thigh, or quadriceps, keep steady with a chair and then pull the foot of the affected leg back and up towards the buttocks.
After stretching out the muscle in question, use a warm towel or heating pad on the tense muscle. A warm bath or directing the hot water from a shower stream on the area may also help relieve the pain. Massaging the muscle cramp with ice can also relieve pain.
Muscle cramps can usually be treated with self-care. A physician can provide stretching exercises to reduce the possibility of getting cramps and step by step instructions for stretching can be found online as well. Recurrent muscles may require assistance from a doctor, who can write a prescription for medicine to relax muscles and help one achieve a full night’s sleep.
Some individuals recommend alternative medicines to relieve cramping. Vitamin B complex supplements are purported to help manage muscle cramps. However, more research is needed to back up this statement.
Taking a long, hot bath with Epsom salt is another option that some recommend for muscle cramps. Because it is rich in magnesium, it should effectively soothe painful cramps. The salts will seep into your skin and reach tense, painful muscles when dissolved in warm bath water. The heat from the water should also help in relieving the spasms as well as easing anxiety.
Some individuals swear by the effectiveness of essential oils. Take a shower using water as hot as manageable without being so hot as to scald the skin. Gently dab away the water. Do not rub the skin, as it can wipe away an important outer later of skin. Then massage relaxing or pain-killing essential oils into the muscles. Good choices to kill the pain are:
Self-Care for Muscle Cramps: Medical & Alternative
- Clary sage
Essential oils that are effective for relaxing include:
- Ylang Ylang
The best way to handle muscle cramps is to prevent them from happening. Drink plenty of liquids, stretch and warm up prior to a workout, take it slow when exercising in warm weather, and make sure that your body has adequate amounts of essential nutrients, such as potassium.
However, if you discover that you get a muscle cramp, stop moving immediately and try to slowly stretch out the affected area. See a doctor if you are plagued with muscle spasms, as an underlying cause may be behind them. Home remedies, self-care, and alternative treatments may effectively soothe the pain of muscle cramps.
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