Muscle Cramps – Causes and Ways to Avoid
Muscle cramps are very common as recognized as an involuntary contraction of a muscle that doesn’t relax. Cramps can occur in any skeletal muscle, but are most common in the legs and feet and muscles that cross two joints (the calf muscle, for example). Cramps can involve part of a muscle or all the muscles in a group. The most commonly affected muscle groups are:
- Back of lower leg / calf (gastrocnemius).
- Back of thigh (hamstrings).
- Front of thigh (quadriceps).
- Feet, hands, arms, abdomen
Muscle cramps range in intensity from a slight twitch or tic to severe pain. A cramped muscle can feel rock-hard and last a few seconds to several minutes or longer. It is not uncommon for cramps to ease up and then return several times before they goes away entirely.
What Causes Muscle Cramps
The exact cause of muscle cramps is unknown, but many experts think it is related to poor flexibility, muscle fatigue or doing new activity. Other factors associated with muscle cramps include exercising in extreme heat, dehydration and electrolyte depletion. Cramps are more common during exercise in the heat because sweat contains fluids as well as electrolyte (salt, potassium, magnesium and calcium). When these nutrients fall to certain levels, the incidence of muscle spasms increases.
Athletes are more likely to get cramps in the preseason when the body is not conditioned and therefore more subject to fatigue. Cramps often develop near the end of intense or prolonged exercise, or the night after.
Treating Muscle Cramps
Cramps usually go away on their own without treatment, but these tips will help speed the process:
- Stop the activity that cause the cramp.
- Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle.
- Hold the joint in a stretched position until the cramp stops.
Preventing Muscle Cramps
- Improve fitness and avoid muscle fatigue
- Stretch regularly after exercise
- Warm up before exercise
- Stretch the calf muscle: In a standing lunge with both feet pointed forward, straighten the rear leg.
- Stretch the hamstring muscle: Sit with one leg folded in and the other straight out, foot upright and toes and ankle relaxed. Lean forward slightly, touch foot of straightened leg. (Repeat with opposite leg.)
- Stretch the Quadriceps muscle: While standing, hold top of foot with opposite hand and gently pull heel toward buttocks. (Repeat with opposite leg.)
Most muscle cramps are not serious. If your muscle cramps are severe, frequent, constant or of concern, see your doctor.