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How to Eliminate Muscle Cramps

You Can Prevent this Problem

-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
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There are two kinds of people in this world: People who have had muscle cramps and people who will experience them sooner or later.

Muscle cramps happen to almost everyone, and for a lot of different reasons. Vigorous exercise can certainly make you susceptible to muscle cramps, but it’s not the only cause. In fact, regular exercise (when done properly) can make muscle cramping less frequent and less painful.

So What Exactly Is a Muscle Cramp?
A muscle cramp is simply an involuntary contraction (spasm) of the muscle fibers. It can happen to any muscle, but is most common in the calves, thighs, and hands and feet. It can affect a small part of a muscle, the whole thing, or even a whole group of muscles that typically work together (e.g., writer’s cramp).  A cramp can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes or more, or come and go multiple times over an extended period.

Sometimes, a muscle will cramp in response to a certain kind of movement (usually one that shortens the muscle, such as when your calf muscle cramps when you point your toes), or during/after a particularly ambitious exercise session or activity you’re not accustomed to. But it can also happen when you’re not using the muscle at all. For example, some people often experience a ''charley horse'' (calf muscle cramp) while sitting still, or even while lying in bed at night. This is especially common in the elderly, but young people can experience it, too.

Medical professionals have identified several different kinds of muscle cramps. Some, like tetany and contractures, are associated with various medical conditions or medications, and you may need medical help to deal with those specific types. Other muscle problems can masquerade as cramps. For example, if you experience leg pain during moderate walking but goes away after you stop walking, you may be suffering from ''intermittent claudication,'' a symptom of  circulation problems (not a cramp) that warrants a trip to your doctor.
 

Related Note: If you have severe and/or persistent problems with muscle cramps that don’t seem to be related to any of the common situations described below, or if your cramps don’t respond to the basic suggestions offered here, you should see a medical professional to get to the root of the problem.


The most common type of cramp is called a ''true'' cramp. Symptoms may include sharp, sudden pain, inability to use the muscle, visible bulging, twitching or firmness, and sensitivity to pressure. Unlike strains and sprains, true cramps aren’t the product of damaged muscle tissue; and the cramp itself doesn’t injure the muscle beyond making it a little sore for a while. True cramps are typically caused by a temporary situation such as dehydration, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, or muscle fatigue brought on by too much exercise--problems you can correct and/or avoid on your own.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • I get Charlie horse's in my left leg everyday. I can't sleep at nite alot of times. - 10/7/2013 5:30:44 PM
  • CAL MAG and LIQUID CALCIUM help tremendously - i have taken them for years since my first pregnancy - that is what the dr. recommended . - 8/1/2012 2:09:38 PM
  • I've suffered through terrible leg cramps after intense exercise--biking and running. Nothing seemed to relieve them except time--I often would be up the entire night. I tried Hammer Endurolyte capsules and they work like a dream. I don't usually pop a pill to solve a problem, but this works every time. I also started tracking potassium on the Nutrition Tracker and found I wasn't getting near enough potassium through diet. Now I make a point to eat food high in potassium--dates, avocados, potatoes (do not peel--potassium will be lost as most of it is next to the peel), coconut water, and banana. - 5/23/2012 10:27:28 AM
  • Once you have the cramp... wet a towel with hot water and wrap the .. leg/foot with it. That is if you can get there or someone to do it.....AHhhhhhh is all I can say.
    - 5/15/2012 12:57:51 PM
  • Thanks for all the recommendations! I started taking multivitamins again and added many of your suggestions. I have slept painfree for three nights now. - 12/28/2011 4:40:32 PM
  • TEMPKIKI
    thank you all for the great comments! - 10/8/2011 6:50:58 AM
  • I would wake up with oh so severe leg cramps in the middle of the night. They could start in my foot and go all the way up into my groin. Sometimes i knew it was from dehydration and/or fatigue, especially if i'd had alcohol before bed; but many times for no apparent reason. They were agonizing! I'm pretty stoic about pain, but these made me cry out awfully! My daughter told me about the bar-of-soap-under
    -the-sheets trick. I thought it was a bunch of bunk, but one night in desperation I rubbed a bar of soap on my cramping thigh. Poof! Gone! So I started to keep a small hotel-sized bar of soap under the sheets, and the cramps stopped. When the cramps started coming back I googled and found that you have to replace with a freshly unwrapped bar every now and then. So, I did, and - no more cramps. I know it's crazy and no one knows why this works, but it really did work for me. - 10/7/2011 10:51:31 PM
  • The potassium in bananas helps prevent charley horses (because of the sodium-potassium pump). I'd been eating a banana everyday and working out. Then one day I skipped the banana and that night I immediately got a charley horse. - 10/7/2011 5:07:42 PM
  • I do not have to exercise to get cramp, even rubbing does not ease, I am doubled up with pain. I also get it in the feet and ankles
    Anyone know whar else I can do ?
    Thanks - 10/7/2011 2:48:25 PM
  • I really don't know why they are caused but dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance definitely seem to play a role , especially for me. I seem to get leg cramps after traveling and extreme exertion. Both cases are sometimes accompanied by low water intake which obviously upsets the internal chemical balance. I also find that tonic water works.

    I don't know how to get rid of them permanently but to relieve them when they occur you have to pull your toes up towards your knees to elongate the calf muscles. The normal response is to point your toes and that only makes the cramp worse. So...point toes up towards your nose rather than away from it. It's foolproof. - 10/7/2011 2:02:39 PM
  • GGARDEN
    I agree with LLUCKE. Drink Milk! I get let cramps at night (I would say like the commercials that it's restless leg syndrome) and sometimes charley horses in the arch of my foot or calves. But I can have a glass of milk and they stop. Lately, I have been trying to get back into drinking milk twice a day. I do eat alot of greens but the milk helps. No more problems with the pain and I sleep better. About 2 years ago I started drinking Organic Milk. I just buy store brand. We switch be/c we weren't drinking as much (kids in college) and it was going bad too quickly. Did you know that organic milk is good for a month or 2 in your refrigerator? And it tastes better. Makes me wonder what exactly is in regular milk that it spoils so quickly. - 10/7/2011 1:40:04 PM
  • Magnesium Phosp 6X is a great under the tongue homeopathic cure that stops them almost instantly! Magnesium relaxes muscles (that is why they recommend mag supplements be taken at bedtime - they make you snoozy) - 10/7/2011 11:44:41 AM
  • AJCUNDIFF
    I suffered with terrible night leg cramps for years and wound up in the emergency room one night because of them. The doctor found that I had terribly low potassium levels from years of low-carb dieting. Supplements only contain 99mg and you need between 3500 and 4500mg per day. This means you must make sure you get enough through diet. So I added potassium to my nutrition tracker, did a google search for "potassium rich foods" and posted the list on my fridge. I have not had a SINGLE cramp in 2 years since I started getting enough potassium!!! ( And I run and workout all the time!!!) - 10/7/2011 10:36:13 AM
  • CRAIGBMCHUGH
    I agree that stretching helps if there is an underlying cause. There are many medical conditions that I have read in the other comments. If you have persistent cramps it's time to see a doctor IMO. I have had problems with my potassium levels which cause cramps that last for hours. Potassium level can be high or low and cause cramps. - 10/7/2011 10:00:59 AM
  • LLUCKE
    This article is a little misleading as there are many things that cause muscle cramps...not just muscle fatigue due to excercise (although it definitely can cause them!). Looking over the other comments, it seems that many are dealing with night time cramps that are likely not excersize dependant. Please know that many cramps are simply dietary dependant...wheth
    er it be due to dehydration or something else such as a calcium/potassium
    /magnesium deficiency. Some medications can cause them too...for example, diuretics (water pills). If you are taking medications and experience muscle cramping regularly, PLEASE talk to your doctor about it. He/She can offer great advice as to what is likely causing it and what you can do to help relieve it.

    I suffered from horribly intense leg cramps in the middle of the night. They woke me up, and there was little I could do to stretch out and relieve the cramp (and therefore the pain). I would roll around on the floor writhing in pain, unable to walk. The cramps entailed every muscle from my knee to my ankle...so if I attempted to stretch out the calf muscles, the muscles on the front of my leg cramped more intensely. Then if I attempted to stretch out the front muscles, the calf muscles cramped more...it was a no win situation. I tried bananas thinking I needed more potassium...the cramps actually intensified...YIK
    ES! Luckily I know a thing or two about body systems including the calcium channel and such (blah blah blah...). I also knew that I was getting little to no calcium and vit D in my diet. So I decided to try something different. The next time I had a cramp, I chugged a glass of milk (barf-city in my oppinion). But it worked like a charm! The cramp began to ease pretty quickly and I was able to stretch and walk it off in no time. I was actually able to go back to sleep and not have another episode the entire night...eye opening experience for me. I've since gotten a lot smarter about it and have added more calcium to my diet and make sure I am well hydrated as well. I no long... - 10/7/2011 7:54:40 AM
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