It's a moment an athlete, or anyone partaking in vigorous physical activity, dreads. Muscle cramps - often in a leg, but they can affect quadriceps, arms, hamstrings and abs - brings you to an unscheduled, painful halt. You may be out for a run when it happens, but muscle spasms can also occur when you are relaxing and sometimes even when you are sliding into sleep.
Muscle fibres contract and lengthen in order to move limbs or lift things. Cramps are caused by spasms, where the fibres stay shortened, and the result is a rigid and involuntarily contracted muscle than can often seem to appear out of nowhere. However, there is generally a reason behind cramps, and there are steps to take to alleviate the muscle spasms and help the muscle return to a relaxed state.
Cramps can occur during exercise, and up to six hours later. A strained muscle could be prone to cramping or a muscle could be suffering from fatigue or overuse. Other factors, such as dehydration, can play a role, along with the lack of electrolytes such as magnesium, potassium or even sodium, which are all vital for cellular function and a healthy nervous system.
Getting older can put you at risk, especially if over the age of 65. Muscle cramps can take place more frequently due to complications from diabetes, alcoholism or hypothyroidism (where the thyroid gland is underactive). If the frequency or severity of muscle cramps is bothering you, it is worth discussing this with your doctor, to see if there is some underlying factor contributing to them. If you are taking medication, such as drugs for high blood pressure or diuretics, this could be causing some muscle cramps.
Generally muscle cramps are not a cause for significant concern. The main problem with muscle spasms is that they hurt and can interrupt important activities or much-needed rest.
Action to relieve pain
Several techniques can be employed immediately to reduce the pain of muscle cramps. Begin by gently stretching the muscle and massaging it to help the fibres relax and to increase blood circulation to the muscle spasms. For a cramping calf muscle, stand on the affected leg while bending your knee a little. If you cannot stand, sit down and extend the cramping limb in front of you. Stretching exercises can also help.
For muscle cramps in a hamstring, extend the leg out in front and pull the top of the foot towards you to lengthen the back of the leg. For muscle cramps in the calf, rest your hands on the back of a chair, bend the unaffected leg and extend the leg with muscle spasms behind you, pushing your heel down to extend the affected area.
For muscle cramps in the quadriceps, or front of the thigh, use a chair to help you balance and bend your leg, pulling the foot up underneath you towards your buttock. This will stretch the front of the leg and ease the muscle spasms.
Walking about on your heels can also help to alleviate muscle spasms and relieve the discomfort.
Give your body the fuel it needs
Magnesium deficiencies are often unnoticed and can be a factor in muscle cramps, so some therapists tell sufferers to take a magnesium supplement. However, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor before embarking on any major changes or supplements in your daily life. Nuts and seeds are good sources of magnesium in the diet, as are whole grains and leafy green vegetables.
Calcium deficiency has also been linked to muscle cramps, so make sure there is sufficient calcium in your meals. Sources of calcium include dairy foods such as cheese, milk and yoghurt. Other calcium rich items include leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and collard greens. Sardines offer plenty of calcium, and tofu is popular with vegetarians.
In general, getting plenty of vitamins and minerals helps prevent muscle spasms, as everything in the body works better when it is well nourished. Try to eat foods that are rich in zinc (lean beef, pumpkin, scallops) and get plenty of vitamins B, D and E.
Magnesium applied externally in the form of Epsom Salts can also be beneficial for muscle spasms. Put some Epsom Salts on a damp cloth for topical application, or add them to a warm bath. Heat can help with alleviating pain from muscle cramps, and if a hot bath is not practical, a hot cloth or a heat pad could be applied to the muscle spasms.
Make sure you are hydrated by drinking plenty of water. If you suspect you could be deficient in electrolytes, get a sports drink, or dissolve some powdered electrolytes in some water and keep it with you.
Help keep cramps at bay by making exercise and a healthy diet part of your life. Regular exercise reinforces the muscle’s memory for contracting and relaxing. Massage can also help keep muscles relaxed, and is generally a pleasant idea whether or not you suffer from cramps.
Stretching properly before exercise is said to reduce the risk of cramping, as does caring for your body with adequate rest and a balanced diet full of fresh, whole foods.
A regular programme of exercises specifically aimed at preventing cramps can also help. One exercise thought to help is quite simple and can be done anywhere where there is a wall. Stand in front of a wall, about one metre away. Lean forward to touch the wall while making sure that the soles of the feet remain on the ground. Maintain this position for five seconds, and keep doing the exercise for five minutes. This can be done three times a day, and the stretching can be a valuable aide in heading off cramps.
Staying flexible generally can also help, along with yoga and warming up and cooling down before any strenuous undertakings. Preparing muscles properly for what you expect them to do always helps in preventing muscle spasms.
For stubborn pain that continues after muscle cramps, some form of analgesic may be required, especially if you can't sleep. Some ibuprofen or paracetamol can be effective for this type of pain. Whilst the pain and discomfort of cramps may uncomfortable, combining it with sleep deprivation can have a major impact on your life both at home and at work since we all need sleep.
If you are struggling with muscle cramps and they continue to cause problems then you should speak with your doctor.