Muscle Cramps: How to Prevent Cramping
Synopsis: 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. Severe leg cramps my be followed by residual tenderness and evidence of muscle fiber necrosis, including elevation of serum creatinine kinase. Nocturnal leg cramps should not be confused with restless legs syndrome, a crawling sensation that is relieved by walking or moving around.
What are Cramps?
A 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 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
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 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:
- Drink six to eight glasses of water daily. Doing so will help prevent dehydration, which may play a role in the cramping.
- Stretch calves regularly throughout the day and at night.
- Ride a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime. This activity can help prevent cramps from developing during the night, especially if you do not get a lot of exercise during the day.
- Keep blankets loose at the foot of the bed to prevent your toes and feet from pointing downward while you sleep.
- Do aquatic therapy regularly during the week to help stretch and condition your muscles.
- Wear proper foot gear.
How Can I Get Cramping to Stop?
When cramping occurs, try these steps:
- First, relax the tightened area. You should gently massage the area that's cramped, whether it's a crick in your calf from over exercising or a spasm in your feet.
- Second, stretch the muscle out slowly and gently, as long as you don't feel pain.
- Walk on or jiggle the affected leg and then elevate it.
- Straighten the leg and flex your foot toward your knee. Grab your toes and pull them upward toward your knee. You should feel your calf muscles stretching.
- Take a hot shower or warm bath, or apply an ice massage to the cramped muscle.
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:
- Increase Vitamin C Intake
Increasing your intake of vitamin C can help keep your muscles from cramping. It is recommended to consume timed-release vitamin C capsules twice a day, 1,000 milligrams in the morning, and 1,000 milligrams at night. Bear in mind that some people may experience diarrhea when taking more than 1,200 milligrams of vitamin C a day.
- Toe The Line On Pain
If your calf muscles are susceptible to recurring cramps, they are probably weak. You can build them up with simple strengthening exercises. It is recommended to perform toe raises. Simply rise up on your toes, hold for 5 seconds, then return your heels to the floor. Repeat 15 to 20 times, two to three times a day. To enhance the benefits of exercise, you may want to try holding dumbbells at your shoulders.
- Try Sports Drinks
If you are low in sodium or potassium, you might be prone to cramping. The reason is that both minerals are electrolytes, which regulate muscle contractions. Sports drinks such as Gatorade can help replenish your supply of sodium and potassium. It is recommended diluting drink with a little water, so that your body absorbs it better.
- Turn Up the Heat
For recurring cramps, it is recommended regular applications of moist heat to the affected muscle. Warm the muscle for 10 to 15 minutes, five or six times a day. Continue the applications every day until there is no trace of cramping.
- Rub The Right Way
Massage the calf, arch, and toes with baby oil for 5 minutes, using a back-and-forth motion, across the length of the muscle. Rolling over the affected muscle from side to side with the palms of your hands can also help.
- Fill Up With Fluids
Keeping yourself adequately hydrated can help prevent cramps. Be sure to top off your tank before and during any physical activity, especially if you are working up a sweat in hot weather. You should drink 8 to 12 ounces of fluid before you start exercising. Follow up with 4 to 8 ounces of fluid every 30 to 45 minutes while you are working out.
- Counter The Contraction
You can gently relax a cramped muscle by guiding it through its normal range of motion. For a cramp in your calf, it is recommended to hold your calf with one hand while pulling your foot toward you with the other hand. The same instructions apply for a cramp in your foot, just place your hand in the arch of your foot instead of on your calf. In both cases hold the stretch until you feel the cramp release.
- Use Ice
Ice is both a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. Try massaging the area with ice for no more than ten minutes or until the area is bright red, which indicates that blood cells have returned to heat the cramped muscle. If ice is too uncomfortable, try heat. Heat improves superficial blood circulation and makes muscles more flexible, so some people find that heat is more soothing for muscle cramps than ice. Try a heating pad for 20 minutes at a time or even a warm shower or bath. Make sure to massage the muscle with your hands following ice or heat.
Nocturnal muscle cramps can often be prevented by doing leg-stretching exercises, such as the one outlined below:
- Stand 30 inches from the wall.
- While keeping your heels on the floor, lean forward, put your hands on the wall, and slowly move your hands up the wall as far as you can reach comfortably.
- Hold the stretched position for 30 seconds. Release.
- Repeat steps 1 through 3 two more times.
- For best results, practice this exercise in the morning, before your evening meal, and before going to bed each night.
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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Disabled World is an independent disability community founded in 2004 to provide disability news and information to people with disabilities, seniors, their family and/or carers. See our homepage for informative reviews, exclusive stories and how-tos. You can connect with us on social media such as X.com and our Facebook page.
Disabled World provides general information only. The materials presented are never meant to substitute for qualified professional medical care, nor should they be construed as such. Funding is derived from advertisements or referral programs. Any 3rd party offering or advertising does not constitute an endorsement.