Have you ever experienced that excruciating pain?
Maybe you felt it when your calf muscle balled up into a hard knot or when your hamstring spasmed incessantly and you felt helpless to stop it.
That burst of pain is unforgettable and paralyzing. If it occurred during competition you performed poorly and if it happened during a work out it often ruined your will to continue.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could avoid muscle cramps altogether?
Imagine a future in which you never have to experience that searing discomfort and having the confidence that muscle cramps will not slow you down, irrespective of the intensity of your activity or the degree of sweltering heat.
Want to hear some great news?
If you implement these seven easy and smart strategies there is a high likelihood that muscle cramps will be a thing of the past and never haunt your performance or workout again!
What to Expect in this Article?
Muscle cramps are nothing new, and most of us have experienced it at some point in our lives.
This article will focus primarily on exercise induced muscle cramping; however, chronic muscle cramping can be a sign of more serious medical conditions and should be discussed with a qualified health practitioner.
This article will explore:
- What is a muscle cramp?
- How to tell if you have a muscle cramp?
- What causes muscle cramps?
- What are risk factors for muscle cramps?
- 7 Easy and Smart Strategies to Get Rid of Muscle Cramps
- How to treat muscle cramps when they occur?
- When to seek medical attention?
What is a muscle cramp?
A muscle cramp can be characterized by sudden and involuntary contractions of one or more muscles.
There is unyielding twitching or spasming of muscle fibers that is frequently accompanied by terrible pain and limited movement.
If you have ever been disturbed from a good night sleep or stopped in your run by a charley horse, you sure know how overwhelming these symptoms can be.
Cramps may occur in any muscle in the body, but tend to occur most frequently in your hamstring, quadriceps, and calf muscles.
Generally speaking, they are harmless and temporary. Cramps may last for a few seconds or up to 15 minutes. If the contraction is hard enough, you may experience residual muscle soreness and limited function, something akin to a minor muscle tear.
How to tell if you have a muscle cramp?
The cardinal finding is sharp pain. You may also feel or notice a hard lump of muscle tissue under the skin.
Moreover, during the attack it might seem quite impossible for you to use the affected muscle.
What causes muscle cramps?
Interestingly, for something so common the exact cause of exercise induced muscle cramping is still not well defined.
There are 2 popular theories that describe the underly physiologic and biologic mechanisms that lead to muscle cramps. They are:
- The electrolyte-imbalance-and-dehydration theory
- The altered neuromuscular control theory
On a fundamental level both theories try to explain why the normal relationships between nerves and muscle, as it pertains to muscle contraction, are disrupted.
There is evidence to support both theories, so it’s safe to assume both proposed mechanisms contribute to the onset of muscle cramps in different situations and in different people.
So a smart preventative and management strategy should incorporate lessons learned from both theories.
The electrolyte imbalance and dehydration theory
This one you have probably heard of in one form or another.
This theory finds it origins from the 100 year old observation that shipyard workers who sweated profusely and worked in warm environments tended to complain of muscle cramps.
As the theory goes the more you sweat the more essential minerals you lose from you body. Examples are sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
These minerals are critical for normal muscle and nerve function and their depletion leads to hyper activation of muscle and uncontrollable spasming.
Additionally, the water loss due to sweating shrinks the size of muscle and nerve cells. This causes the area where nerves and muscles meet (called the neuro muscular junction) to change its shape.
An alteration in the usual shape of the neuromuscular junction changes the overall electric charge of the muscle and leads to muscular hyperactivity and muscle spasm.
The altered neuromuscular control theory
There are 2 types of special nerve receptors that help control muscle tone and muscle activation:
- Muscle Spindle
- Golgi Tendon Apparatrus
The muscle spindle receptor sits on top of muscle and stimulates muscle activation, while the Golgi tendon apparatus as it names implies, is located on the tendon that connects muscle to bone.
While the muscle spindle receptor instructs muscle to contract, the Golgi tendon apparatus instructs muscle to relax.
In normal conditions, the muscle receives balanced inputs from both receptors, but during muscle cramping the muscle spindle works in overdrive while the Golgi apparatus shuts down leading to unrelenting muscle spasming.
The altered neuromuscular control theory postulates that the main reason for this dysfunction is due to muscle fatigue, as opposed to water or mineral loss as proposed by the electrolyte imbalance and dehydration theory.
What are Risk factors for Muscle Cramps?
Several triggers are linked to muscle cramping.
The electrolyte imbalance and dehydration theory and the altered neuromuscular control theory suggest that any risk factors that predispose muscles to fatigue, dehydration, mineral depletion, or nerve muscle disconnect potentially puts you at risk for having muscle cramps.
The most common ones include the following:
Dehydration–Water is needed to hydrate muscles so they can contract and relax easily. When you are not sufficiently hydrated, muscles and nerves stop functioning well and muscle spasms can occur.
Nutritional Deficiencies–Insufficient sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium all have been linked to muscle cramping. Most often these minerals are lost during vigorous sweating and need to be replenished, but in some cases people are chronically deficient, especially when it comes to calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Lack of Activity and Deconditioning– When somebody stays in the same position for an extended period of time cramps may occur. This is a common scenario for bedridden patients.
Additionally, if you are “out of shape” your muscles are likely to fatigue easily and you experience muscle cramps.
Intense Activity and Prolonged Duration– People are more likely to suffer from cramps after a very strenuous exercise. Normally, pushing a muscle to its limit will cause fatigue and result in cramping during the exercise and sometimes even after the activity stops.
Repetition of Movements– Perfecting your favorite sport or activity requires extensive hours of practice and the use of the same muscle groups repetitively. This repetition of movements can cause cramps. This is common but not exclusive to athletes. Those who do typing and scrubbing more often are also prone to develop muscle cramps.
Lack of Ergonomics And Poor Body Mechanics–Poor posture and bad movements can cause muscle strain and lead to early muscle fatigue causing muscle cramping.
Inadequate Carbohydrate Intake-Sugar is the favorite fuel source of muscle and nerves. If you have don’t consume enough sugar your muscles and nerves will fatigue leading to cramps.
Cramping History-Research suggests a genetic component to muscle cramping. If you have a history of cramping or even a family history, you are at a higher risk for recurrence.
Poor Stretching Habits-Muscles that are chronically shortened are more likely to cramp. This partially explains the high incidence of muscle cramping in your calf muscles.
Injury–Muscle cramping may be the body’s way to respond to injuries. While it’s not convenient at all, the body uses muscle spasms to limit movements and stabilize the affected area.
Lack of Sleep–Sleep deprivation is yet another possible reason for muscle cramps. Nocturnal cramps affect 60% of adults. They are linked to nerve dysfunction and muscle fatigue. (3).
Drinking Alcohol–Excessive consumption of alcohol may lead to cramping by causing alterations in the structure of the skeletal muscles. Alcohol causes lactic acid to accumulate in the body, causing spasm and soreness. It likewise has a dehydrating effect (4).
7 Easy and Smart Strategies to Get Rid of Muscle Cramps
1. Adequate Hydration
Muscle cramps are frequently caused by dehydration.
Ingest a liter of water or hypotonic sports drink at least 1 hour before competition and the majority of the fluid, electrolytes, and nutrients will be absorbed and become available to your body before competition or intense training begins.
2. Consume Plenty of Essential Minerals
Depleted sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium are associated with muscle cramping.
Most diets provide sufficient sodium; however, if you are prone to cramping consider adding ~1.3 g∙L-1 of salt to your pre workout drinks to avert muscle cramps.
Additionally, many people consume inadequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium and are chronically deficient. Excellent natural sources of calcium, magnesium, potassium are:
Calcium–tofu, sesames seeds, yogurt, collard greens
Potassium–beet greens, sweet potato, swiss chard, lima beans
Magnesium–pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard, soy beans
3. Stretching and Proper Warm Up
Dutifully perform pre and post workout stretching. Chronically tight and shortened muscles are more prone to cramping.
Additionally, an easy warm up helps muscles and nerves coordinate so they are less likely to function abnormally.
Massaging muscle helps relax it and as an added benefit it feels fantastic. Consider a massage pre and post workout.
5. Creatine Supplementation
Creatine is the main energy source for muscles during intense activity. Consuming optimal amounts of creatine will help protect muscle from fatigue.
6. Proper training
Muscle fatigue is a major risk factor for muscle cramping. Prepare your muscles by training intensely in humid and hot conditions to better acclimate them to fatiguing conditions.
Moreover, focus on endurance training and plyometrics.
Endurance exercises train muscles to become less fatigued and expand how much fluid your body can hold, making you less likely to get dehydrated.
Additionally, the explosive nature of plyometrics can train neuromuscular units to operate more effectively with increasing levels of intensity.
Plyometric training can improve the efficiency of neuromuscular control by muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs, thereby making them more resistant to fatigue.
7. Avoid alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol leads to dehydration and if done chronically to mineral malnutrition.
How to treat muscle cramps when they occur?
If you are experiencing a muscle cramp your main goal is to decrease uncontrolled muscle activation. This can be accomplished either by decreasing the signal that stimulates muscle or by increasing the signal telling muscle to relax.
Here are some strategies to consider:
Chamomile Oil Massage– Chamomile is an ancient herb used to treat muscle spasms and cramps. Chamomile oil is rich in natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that soothe muscle(11).
Drink Pickle Juice– A small volume of highly salty and acidic brine (30 to 60 mL) could relieve cramp within 35 seconds. Pickle juice contains acetic acid that can relax cramping muscles.
Passive stretching-Stretching increases the tension in a muscle, thereby stimulating theGolgi tendon organ’s and telling muscle to relax.
Antagonist Muscle Contraction–Antagonist muscles are muscles that perform the exact opposite movement of the cramping muscle.
For example, the antagonist muscles of your hamstring are your quadriceps. Your hamstring muscles bend your knee and bring your leg towards your buttocks.
Therefore, during a hamstring muscle cramp your should activate your quads by extending your knee and brining your leg away from your buttocks. This sends a signal to your hamstrings to relax.
Ingest cinnamon, peppers, or mustard-The active ingredients in these substances help decrease muscle activation and stop cramping.
When to seek medical help?
Muscle cramps should disappear after a few seconds or minutes. However, in rare cases, they can get too severe requiring the help of a medical professional. You should visit a doctor soon if you experience any of the following:
- Your muscle cramp is causing severe discomfort that last longer than 15 minutes
- When your muscle cramp is accompanied by leg swelling and redness
- If aside from muscle contraction, you are experiencing weakness and numbness
- Episodes of cramping that occurs frequently
- It does not improve with home remedies, time, or self-care
- Your cramps are not associated with any obvious cause
Specific Medical Conditions Associated with Cramps
Cramps are commonly linked to a lack of blood supply and nerve compression (2).
In cases of narrowed arteries, less blood is being delivered to your muscles, especially in the legs. This can produce a cramp-like pain while you are doing exercises.
Nerve compression, specifically in the spine, likewise produces the same type of pain in the legs. Symptoms may worsen the longer you walk.
Muscle cramps are commonly associated with the following:
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
Did you know that aside from being a symptom of specific medical conditions, muscle cramps may also arise as a side effect of some medications?
Diuretics, to be exact, can induce cramping because of dehydration. These drugs also reduce the sodium levels in the body (5).
Other medicines that were found to cause nocturnal cramping includes:
- IV iron sucrose for iron deficiency anemia
- Raloxifene and Teriparatide for osteoporosis
- Naproxen for pain and fever
- Conjugated estrogens for menopause
Those who are in the process of withdrawing sedative drug use may also experience muscle cramps for a short period of time.
By knowing the possible causes and risk factors for muscle cramps, such as dehydration, fatigue, and mineral deficiency you can take the necessary steps to treat and prevent them!