According to the medical explanation – A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Cramps can affect any muscle under your voluntary control. The most commonly affected muscle groups are:
- Back of lower leg or calf (gastrocnemius)
- Back of thigh (hamstrings)
- Front of thigh (quadriceps)
- Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen and along the rib cage are also very common.
Cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour, and occasionally longer. It is common for a cramp to recur several times before finally going away. The cramp may involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle, or several muscles that usually act together. The cramp I used to have involves my calf and it normal happens at night.
Fortunately, most cramps are not a danger to health but they can be very uncomfortable. For athletes in competitions, it can be a disaster for the team.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps may happen because of these causes:
- Cramps can be caused by muscle fatigue from sports. Cramp pain following exercise is usually relieved by rest, but in severe cases even rest offers no benefit, and pain can continue even if you lie down.
- Even if you do not play sports, muscle fatigue may occur from sitting or lying for an extended period in an awkward position, or any repetitive use can cause cramps.
- Imbalances of fluids, hormones, or body salts (the “electrolytes” calcium, magnesium, potassium) or dehydration. Muscle cramps are more likely when you exercise in hot weather because sweat drains your body’s fluids, salt and minerals as mentioned. Loss of these nutrients may also cause a muscle to spasm.
- When injury such as a broken bone or strained muscle occurs, sometimes the muscles surrounding the injury spasm as a protective mechanism. In this case the spasm tends to minimize movement and stabilize the area of injury.
- Diseases affecting nerves and muscles.
- Some medications, for instance, diuretics.
Who Can Have Muscle Cramp?
Almost everyone – an estimated 95% – experiences a muscle cramp at some stage. Although children can get them, cramps are more common in adults and tend to become more frequent with age. Some people get them regularly with any physical exertion but here are few common groups who may have muscle cramp:
- Muscle cramps are very common among endurance athletes (marathon runners and triathlon athletes). Cramps often develop near the end of intense or prolonged exercise, or the night after.
- Older people are also susceptible to muscle cramps due to normal muscle loss (atrophy) that begins in the mid-40s and accelerates with inactivity. As we age, our muscles are not able to work as hard or as quickly as they used to. The body also loses some of its sense of thirst and its ability to sense and respond to changes in temperature.
- Pregnant women and the elderly commonly experience nocturnal leg cramps. Muscle spasms in the calf (charley horse) can occur one or many times during the night, from a few seconds duration through to a few minutes.
How Can A Cramp Be Stopped?
- Most muscle cramps can be stopped if the muscle is stretched, either by standing up or massaging.
- Stretch and massage a cramped leg by straightening it and pointing toes upward, while gently rubbing the cramped area to help the muscle relax.
- For a calf cramp (charley horse) – put weight on the affected leg and bend the knee slightly. For a thigh cramp, keep both legs straight and lean forward at the waist, using a chair to steady yourself.
- You may also undo a cramp with ice. Ice is both a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. Try massaging the area with ice for no more than 10 minutes or until the area is bright red, which indicates that blood cells have returned to heat the cramped muscle. If ice is too uncomfortable, try heat. Heat improves superficial blood circulation and makes muscles more flexible, so some people find that heat is more soothing for muscle cramps than ice. Try a heating pad for 20 minutes at a time or even a warm shower or bath. Make sure to massage the muscle with your hands following ice or heat. My experience with heat is far more better than ice to stop the cramp.
How Can Cramps Be Prevented?
- Keep your body adequately hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids may help to prevent reoccurring cramps, as fluids help muscles contract and relax. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water everyday, preferably non-caffeinated drinks.
- Daily stretching may help prevent nocturnal leg cramps. Before sleep, stand just short of a meter from a wall with hands on the wall. While bending one knee, lean towards the wall and hold for ten seconds keeping the heels pressed flat to the floor before straightening the knee. Repeat using the other leg. Each leg should be stretched up to ten times for best effect.
If you have frequent cramps, I suggest you to seek medical advice. A doctor may prescribe a suitable muscle relaxant and he will check to ensure that there are no underlying problems causing the cramps.
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