You Wanted to Know: Muscle Cramps

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Whether it’s the excruciating pain of a charley horse or a dull, achy pain in your neck, nearly everyone has had or will experience a muscle cramp at some point. These sudden, involuntary muscle contractions usually only last a few seconds to 15 minutes, but they can be temporarily debilitating. One of our viewers, Alex, is looking for solutions:

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There are many common causes of muscle cramps that are easy to solve, while other less common causes may require medical attention. The most frequently affected muscles are the gastrocnemius muscle in the calf, the hamstring in the back of the thigh and the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh. Straining or overusing a muscle, particularly from long periods of physical activity or repetitive motion or from holding one position for too long can cause muscle cramps. Hot weather and dehydration can also trigger or exacerbate them. Endurance athletes and people over 40 may be particularly susceptible.

To help prevent cramps, the first thing you should do is drink plenty of fluids (ideally at least eight glasses of water) every day. If you’re exercising, be sure to have fluids with you so that you can replenish during the activity. Second, be sure to warm up and stretch before and after using a muscle for an extended period of time. If you’re prone to muscle cramps at night, you can also stretch or do some light activity, like riding a stationary bike, for a few minutes before sleep. Regular stretching can help to lengthen muscle fibers and allow them to contract more forcefully when you exercise, reducing muscle fatigue.

A lack of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium or calcium can also lead to muscle cramps. People taking diuretics may be more likely to be depleted of these essential electrolytes and should ask their doctors if they are experiencing cramps. Certain sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes, though look for ones that don’t have lots of added sugars or artificial flavors or sweeteners. Coconut water is a great sports drink alternative.

If your muscle is cramping, stop whatever activity triggered the pain and gently stretch and massage the muscle, holding the stretch until the pain improves. You can use a warm heating pad or bath to ease tight muscles and a cold compress or ice to soothe sore or tender muscles. And, of course be sure to rehydrate. As you work toward building better endurance, muscle strength and flexibility, the frequency and severity of muscle cramps will likely improve.

While these simple solutions will likely be enough to help you manage the occasional or average cramp, cramps can also be a sign of certain medical conditions that could require professional treatment. For example, poor blood supply to muscles in the leg, usually caused by cholesterol buildup in the arteries, can cause muscle cramping during exercise that improves with rest, and may be dangerous over time. Compressed nerves in the spine may also produce a cramping sensation in the legs. You should consult a doctor about any cramp that recurs frequently, doesn’t improve with these interventions, is associated with muscle weakness, swelling or redness, or which isn’t obviously related to a particular cause.