If you have ever experienced a sudden and severe muscle contraction, and the majority of us have, you’ll know just how painful that experience can be. While muscle cramps generally last only a few seconds to a few minutes, the often surprising and sudden onset and intensity are not as quickly forgotten. Muscle soreness may remain for several days and it may take up to a week for the muscle to return to a normal, pain free state. A cramp occurs when a muscle involuntarily contracts and does not release. Skeletal muscles, which we voluntarily control, are most likely to be affected. Most often cramping occurs in the calf, hamstring or quadricep muscles but hand and foot cramps are also common.
Causes of muscle cramping can include muscle fatigue, inadequate stretching, poor conditioning, dehydration and electrolyte depletion. Low levels of potassium and calcium may also cause muscle cramping, as both minerals contribute to healthy muscle function. Those most susceptible to cramping include athletes, who often develop cramps at the end of intense or prolonged exercise, and the elderly due to normal muscle atrophy and the body’s lessened ability to respond to thirst and temperature changes. Those who are ill, overweight or taking certain medications are also at high risk of cramping.
True cramps, one of four basic categories of skeletal muscle cramps, are the most common type. True cramps are most likely the result of hyperexcitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscles and can occur under a variety of circumstances. These can include:
Injury to the muscle or a broken bone can cause persistent spasms as a protective mechanism to keep the muscle or bone stable in order to recover.
Strenuous physical activity, overuse of muscles and muscle fatigue can cause cramping during exercise or while at rest many hours later. Rest cramps, which often strike during the night, can be painful, frequent and sleep disruptive.
Dehydration caused by excess fluid loss during vigorous activities increases the likelihood of cramping. Poor fluid intake, diuretic medications , and sodium depletion are all contributing factors that can result in dehydration.
Low blood calcium or magnesium levels can directly impact and overstimulate nerve endings and muscles, increasing the predisposition for true muscle cramping. Low levels of calcium and magnesium can be the result of pregnancy, diuretic medications, inadequate dietary absorption or poorly functioning parathyroid glands, which regulate calcium balance.
Low potassium blood levels can cause cramping and muscle weakness, as potassium affects the way neuromuscular cells discharge and regenerate energy. When potassium levels are low, muscles and nerves cannot function properly.
Vitamin deficiencies including thiamine (B1), pantothenic acid (B5) and pyridoxine (B6) can also lead to muscle cramping although the exact reasons are unclear.
Poor circulation, which results in decreased oxygen in the muscle tissue, can cause severe pain and cramping.
Initially, stretching the muscle will often relieve a cramp especially in the feet and legs. Gentle muscle massage can help to relax the muscle. Later on, a warm bath or a heating pad may help relieve the soreness that may follow a cramp or muscle spasm often called a Charlie horse. Fluid and electrolyte, especially sodium and potassium, replacement is critical for treating or preventing cramping. If cramping is severe or persistent or not associated with an obvious cause, it can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, which may require a visit to your healthcare professional.
To prevent muscle cramping, stretch before and after exercise, hydrate before, during and after the activity, and make sure to get adequate amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium. Although cramps are painful, the discomfort is generally short lived. Giving your muscles a little TLC can prevent or lessen the occurrence of muscle cramping, allowing for a great exercise session or a good night’s sleep.
Try these products for relief of muscle cramping:
Spaz Out® by Metabolic Maintenance is a balanced mineral formula that is designed to replenish the mineral electrolytes most at risk of deficiency in those with muscle cramping. Contains calcium, magnesium and potassium and other minerals.
Muscle Cramp/Tension Formula by Pure Encapsulations contains important electrolytes and soothing herbs to relieve occasional nighttime muscle cramps, minor muscle cramps associated with exercise and overall muscle tension.
Restore by Heel/BHI is a homeopathic formula for the temporary relief of muscle soreness, burning and cramping resulting from physical exertion or lactic acid buildup.