Coping with Muscle Cramps
Has a muscle cramp ever woken you up in the middle of the night? Or stopped you in your tracks in the middle of an activity? If you’re like most people, chances are your answer is “yes.” Muscle cramps, or “charley horses” as they are sometimes called, are extremely common and occur when muscles involuntarily contract and cannot relax.
Simple self-care measures such as gentle stretching can usually treat muscle cramps.
“Cramps can affect any muscle under your control,” explains Carolyn Quist, DO, an osteopathic physician from Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Quist adds that “cramps can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group.” The most notorious sites for cramps are the calves, thighs and arch of the foot. Cramps in the hands, arms, abdomen and along the rib cage are also very common.
“When a person experiences a muscle cramp, the muscle that is cramping feels harder than normal to the touch or may even show visible signs of twitching,” Dr. Quist says. The intensity of muscle cramps range from feeling like mild twitches to excruciating pain.
Causes of Muscle Cramps
Unfortunately, cramps can occur anywhere, anytime to anyone. “No one is immune,” explains Dr. Quist. “You could be young or old, very active or very sedentary, and you could develop a muscle cramp doing just about anything.” However, Dr. Quist adds that infants, the elderly, the overweight, and athletes are at the greatest risk for muscle cramps.
Common causes of cramps include insufficient stretching, muscle fatigue and exercising in the heat.
Some common causes of muscle cramps are:
- Insufficient stretching before exercise
- Exercising in the heat
- Muscle fatigue
- Imbalances in the levels of electrolytes in the blood, such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and phosphate
Treating Muscle Cramps
The good news is that muscle cramps usually go away within minutes and typically do not warrant medical attention. “You can usually treat muscle cramps with self-care measures,” says Dr. Quist. Here are a few of the methods:
- Stop doing whatever activity triggered the cramp.
- Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, holding it in stretched position until the cramp stops.
- For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you’re unable to stand, try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg is in a straightened position. This will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp.
- For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side toward your buttock.
- Apply heat to tense/tight muscles, or cold to sore/tender muscles.
Dr. Quist warns that if cramps are severe, happen frequently, respond poorly to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes like strenuous exercise, you should see your doctor. “They could be a symptom of problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications or nutrition,” she says.
To prevent muscle cramps, Dr. Quist advises to work toward better overall fitness. She also offers the following important tips:
- Stretch before and after working out, particularly those muscle groups most prone to cramping.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day.
- Drink fluids before, during and after your activity.