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What are Muscle Cramps and How to Prevent Cramping

Outline: Muscle cramps generally result from over exertion and dehydration a lack of fluid in your system leads to electrolyte imbalance causing muscles to cramp up.

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What are Cramps?

Cramp is a term often used to refer to a painful, involuntary contraction of a single muscle or a muscle group. A muscle cramp, technically, occurs when your muscle tightens and shortens causing a sudden severe pain.

Muscle cramps generally result from overexertion and dehydration.

When you don't have enough fluid in your system, it leads to an electrolyte imbalance that causes your muscles to cramp up. Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium that help the cells to function normally. An imbalance occurs when we have too much or too little of one or more electrolytes in our system. The main electrolytes affecting muscle cramping are potassium, sodium and calcium.

Cramps may also occur after inactivity, such as sitting too long in one place without moving a muscle. Sometimes you can even get a cramp when you're just lying in bed, though researchers cannot define a definite cause.

Most often people get cramps in their calves, however, you can also get them in your thighs, feet or just about any muscle. Cramps can be eased by a few simple methods as mentioned below.

Leg Cramps

Leg cramps frequently occur in the legs of elderly patients and can be extremely painful.Severe leg cramps my be followed by residual tenderness and evidence of muscle fiber necrosis, including elevation of serum creatinine kinase.

Cramps in the calf muscles are so common as to be considered normal, but more generalized cramps may be a sign of chronic disease of the motor neuron.

Complaints of muscle pain and muscle fatigue are among the most frequent symptoms offered by patients. The decision as to which patients require extensive diagnostic tests can usually be made by history, examination, and routine blood studies.

Muscle cramps can be particularly troublesome during pregnancy, in patients with electrolyte disturbances (hyponatremia), and in patients on hemodialysis.

Spasms (abnormal movements of muscle) may arise from abnormal electrical activity of the central nervous system (CNS) mediated via the motor neuron or occur within the motor neuron or muscle fiber itself.

Causes of Nocturnal Leg Cramps

Woman sitting on the floor wearing old jeans holding her right foot with both hands - Photo by Imani Clovis on Unsplash.
Woman sitting on the floor wearing old jeans holding her right foot with both hands - Photo by Imani Clovis on Unsplash.

No one knows for sure what causes nocturnal leg cramps. In many cases, there doesn't seem to be any specific trigger. However, sometimes the cramps are caused by overexertion of the muscles, structural disorders (eg, flat feet), standing on concrete, prolonged sitting, inappropriate leg positions while sedentary, or dehydration.

Less common causes include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, hypoglycemia, anemia, thyroid and endocrine disorders, and use of some medications.

Some viral and bacterial infections may also induce the occurrence of muscle spasm. Other health problems that are also known triggers of this muscle problem include diabetes, circulation anomalies, dermatomyositis, thyroid disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.

In many cases, it is impossible to determine the cause of the leg cramps. Muscle cramps can arise from spontaneous firing of special nerve groups followed by contraction of certain muscle fibers. Cramps that are recurrent and localized to one muscle group may suggest nerve root disease.

Leg Cramp Treatment

The decision to treat a patient with leg cramps depends on the severity and degree of impairment. If the pain is mild and self-limiting, topical and/or oral non-prescription analgesics may be appropriate. (Specific products may be recommended by a physician or pharmacist.)

For more severe pain or if the pain is referred, the patient should see their physician for further evaluation. Quinine Sulfate is usually the prescription drug of choice for leg cramps.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are painful, brief muscle cramps where muscles may spasm or jerk involuntarily. Heat cramps can occur during exercise or work in a hot environment or begin a few hours later.

Heat cramps usually involve muscles that are fatigued by heavy work such as calves, thighs, and shoulders. You are most at risk if you are doing work or activities in a hot environment - usually during the first few days of an activity you're not used to.

You are also at risk if you sweat a great deal during exercise and drink large amounts of water or other fluids that lack salt.

What are Nocturnal Leg Cramps?

These cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions of the calf muscles that occur during the night or while at rest.

Occasionally, muscles in the soles of the feet also become cramped. The sensation can last a few seconds or up to 10 minutes, but the soreness may linger. The cramps can affect persons in any age-group, but they tend to occur in middle-aged and older populations.

Nocturnal leg cramps should not be confused with restless legs syndrome, a crawling sensation that is relieved by walking or moving around. Although uncomfortable, restless legs syndrome typically does not involve cramping or pain.

What can I do to prevent these cramps? To stave off future episodes of nocturnal leg cramps, consider the following tips:

How Can I Get Cramping to Stop?

When cramping occurs, try these steps:

Also Try:

If you get muscle cramps after exercise, drink water or a sports drink or juice to rehydrate and restore your electrolyte balance. Most of the time water will be sufficient to rehydrate you, however, you are then better off choosing a sports drink containing electrolytes.

Other Cramp Relieving Tips Include:

Nocturnal muscle cramps can often be prevented by doing leg-stretching exercises, such as the one outlined below:

R. Walker contacted us with this solution:

I have suffered from night cramps in my calves for many years, but finally found a way to relieve them, and they stay gone! If I get an attack at night, or anytime, just get out of bed and stand on the balls of the feet (Tip-toes) and they will go away immediately.

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Cite: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English. Author: Disabled World. Electronic Publication Date: 2018/09/18. Last Revised Date: 2018/09/18. Reference Title: "What are Muscle Cramps and How to Prevent Cramping", Source: What are Muscle Cramps and How to Prevent Cramping. Abstract: Muscle cramps generally result from over exertion and dehydration a lack of fluid in your system leads to electrolyte imbalance causing muscles to cramp up. Retrieved 2019-11-22, from https://www.disabled-world.com/health/orthopedics/cramps.php - Reference Category Number: DW#175-13549.
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