Are muscles cramping your style? Find out how to prevent these painful episodes.
If you’ve ever had a “charley horse,” you know the sudden, intense pain and tightness caused by a muscle locked in spasm.
A muscle cramp is the contraction of a muscle that refuses to relax. Cramps can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group. The most commonly affected muscle groups are:
- Back of lower leg/calf
- Back of thigh (hamstrings)
- Front of thigh (quadriceps)
- Feet, hands, arms, abdomen and rib cage
Cramps typically occur when these muscles are overworked (known as “muscle fatigue”). Experts believe that the exertion may cause a nerve malfunction that prevents the muscle from relaxing.
You may get cramps when you play tennis, golf, bowl or swim. They can happen to any active person – or even while sitting, walking or sleeping. Sometimes the slightest movement that shortens a muscle can trigger a cramp.
Muscle cramps are very common among endurance athletes, such as marathon runners or triathletes. Older people can be prone to cramps, too, due to muscle weakness or certain medications. Dehydration may also lead to cramps as well as the imbalance of some minerals in the body.
If you get a cramp
At the onset of a cramp, the first step is to gently stretch the affected muscle. Drink some fluids, too, to make sure you are well hydrated.
When the extreme tightness begins to lessen, you can begin the “RICE” process:
Continued massage while icing may be helpful in some cases. Do not use ice if you have any problems with nerve damage or circulation.
There are several things you can do to help prevent some types of painful muscle cramps:
Get fit. The more fit you are, the less likely you’ll have muscle fatigue. But always check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.
- Some athletes experience cramps at the start of a training period, before they are properly conditioned.
- Don’t push yourself too hard if you are not ready. Overexertion depletes a muscle’s oxygen supply. This can lead to a buildup of waste product, which can stimulate a spasm.
Practice proper warm-up and cool-down. A regular program of flexibility exercises lengthens muscle fibers so they can contract and flex more easily when you exercise.
Consult a trainer or coach to learn proper flexibility techniques.
Drink up. Cramps are more likely to occur when you exercise in hot weather because sweat drains your body’s fluids, salt and other minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium. These may all have a role in muscle cramps.
To prevent dehydration, drink enough fluids before, during and after you exercise.
Mind your diet. Loss of certain nutrients may cause a muscle to spasm.
- Ensure adequate calcium by taking in enough low-fat dairy products, green leafy vegetables and beans.
- Potassium can be found in most fruits and vegetables, beans, dairy, fish and sweet potatoes.
- Magnesium deficiency may lead to muscle cramping. Magnesium is found in whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, beans and legumes.
- A sodium imbalance can contribute to cramps. This may occur with athletes who exercise hard for more than 3 or 4 hours in the heat, such as tennis players or long distance runners. In this case, make sure to have foods or fluids that contain some sodium.
When to call your doctor
Most muscle cramps are not serious. But there are some serious problems that can cause cramping, including problems with the spine or nerves, circulation, infections or metabolism. If your muscle cramps are new, severe, frequent, constant or of concern, see your doctor right away.
Seek emergency medical care if the cramping is associated with:
- Heat stroke
- Redness, swelling or tenderness
- Pale or bluish discoloration
- New weakness or severe pain