Understanding Muscle Cramps
What Is a Muscle Cramp?
Muscle cramps can affect all types of muscles and are especially common in the skeletal muscles (muscles we control voluntarily). They are frequently experienced in the extremities, especially in the calf muscles, legs and feet.
When we move our limbs the associated muscles contract and relax alternately. The same applies to the muscles of our posture which contract and relax in a synchronized manner.
When these muscles contract without our conscious input we call it a spasm, if the spasm is forceful and sustained we call it a cramp.
A muscle cramp is a sustained, painful, involuntary contracted muscle that can last from seconds to around 15 minutes or more, and may recur many times before it resolves itself. It can be associated with an entire muscle, part of a muscle, or several muscles that work in unison, such as the muscles used to flex adjacent fingers.
Muscles that we cannot control (involuntary muscles) such as muscles in the heart, bronchial tree, blood vessel walls, urine passages and intestinal tract etc can also spasm and cramp.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
The most common theory is that muscle cramps are caused by over excited nerves stimulating the muscle. This can occur after:
- Nerve and/or muscle injury
- Low levels of potassium, magnesium or calcium
- After taking certain medications
- Rest (sometimes cramps just happen)
Vitamin deficiencies including B1 (thiamine), B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine) may also cause muscles to cramp.
What Are Muscle Cramp Signs And Symptoms?
Muscle cramps cause:
- Pain in the cramping muscle (From mild to severe)
- The cramping muscle becomes firm/hard
Muscle Cramp Treatments
Medication is not usually necessary for normal muscle cramps, because of the short duration most muscle cramps would have subsided before the medication could take effect.
The best way to treat a muscle cramp is to use any method available to relax the cramping muscle. This generally involves stretching the affected area, massage, and/or the application of heat (hot soak or heat pad).
Other methods treat the underlying condition causing the muscle cramps and may include things like:
- Replenishing electrolytes
- Calcium supplements
- Hormone treatment
If you tend to cramp after vigorous physical activity it may be due to fluid loss. If this is the case it is important to replenish fluids and electrolytes – especially sodium and potassium.
Muscle cramps are generally a temporary nuisance, if they recur frequently or last for an abnormal period of time see your doctor. Persistent, ongoing muscle cramps may require definitive testing and evaluation.
Effective Stretches To Get Rid Of Muscle Cramps
Feet And Legs – Stand up and walk around (that’s a no brainer)
Calf muscle – With the legs straight curl the foot and toes up towards the head
Cramps in the hand – place your hand as flat as you can on a wall with the fingers facing down
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
The following may help prevent muscle cramps:
- Stretch before and after exercise (especially after, whilst you are nice and warm)
- Warm up before and cool down after physical activity
- Drink fluids before, during and after physical activity
- If you sweat a lot replace electrolytes (especially sodium and potassium) with sports drinks etc.
- Avoid excessive fatigue
- For cramps during pregnancy you may use calcium and magnesium supplements, and drinking tonic water (quinine) before bed may help with night cramps