Muscle CrampsOct 12, 2020
How to Prevent or Reduce Muscle Cramps
If you've ever been awakened in the night or stopped in your tracks by a sudden charley horse, you know that muscle cramps can cause severe pain. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.
Long periods of exercise or physical labor can lead to muscle cramps. Some medications and certain medical conditions also may cause muscle cramps. You usually can treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures.
Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.
What causes cramps?
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn't known.
*Although most muscle cramps are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
Inadequate blood supply— Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you're exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising.
Nerve compression—Compression of nerves in your spine also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position (such as you would use when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you) may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
Mineral depletion— Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Medications often prescribed for high blood pressure also can deplete these minerals.
What are some risk factors?
Factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.
Not drinking enough water is one of the biggest reasons for cramps.
You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.
How to prevent cramps?
Drink plenty of liquids every day. The amount depends on what you eat, your level of activity, the weather, your health, your age and gender and medications you take. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax, keeping muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. During activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and continue drinking water or other fluids after you're finished.
Stretch your muscles!
Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you're sleeping.
What are treatment options?
You can usually treat muscle cramps with self-care measures. Stretching exercises can help you reduce your chances of getting muscle cramps. Making sure you stay well-hydrated also can help. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor might prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.
Stretch and Massage
Stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub it to help it relax. For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you're unable to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair with your affected leg extended.
Try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg remains in a straightened position. This will also help ease hamstring cramps. For a front thigh or quadriceps cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.
Heat or Cold
Use a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath or directing the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle also can help. Alternatively, massaging the cramped muscle with ice may relieve pain.
Some suggest taking vitamin B complex supplements to help manage leg cramps. However, more research is needed to confirm this benefit.
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When to see a doctor?
Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care.
However, see your doctor if your cramps:
- Cause severe discomfort
- Are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes
- Are associated with muscle weakness
- Happen frequently
- Don't improve with self-care
- Aren't associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise