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.
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 it 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.
Knowing what causes a cramp isn't much consolation when you’re in the middle of a painful episode of cramping. Therefore, it pays to know how to stop the cramp quickly or, better yet, head it off before it happens.
How to Stop a Cramp
Many simple muscle cramps can be stopped quickly by moderately stretching the cramped muscle. If you have cramps in your feet or toes, you can often ''walk it off'' by simply standing up and/or walking around in bare or stocking feet. For hand cramps, try pressing your hand against a flat surface. For a calf cramp, straighten your leg in the air while lying on your back and pull your toes toward your head using a towel. Alternatively, lean into a wall with your heels flat on the floor and your feet two to three feet from the wall—just far enough to produce a light stretch. For other muscles, you can learn specific stretches for the muscle that is affected.
Sometimes, massaging a cramped muscle will help release it. If you suffer from rest cramps (e.g., cramps that happen while sleeping or during extended sitting), lightly stretching those muscles before sleeping or sitting may help prevent the cramps.
When a cramp comes on during a workout session, stop the exercise long enough to stretch the muscle. You can further help a cramped muscle relax by contracting the opposing muscle group (e.g., contract your quads to help relax a cramp in your hamstrings). Massage the muscle for a little while while you get yourself rehydrated, consuming a sports drink with electrolytes if possible, then resume your activity. If the cramping continues, then overuse or fatigue is the likely cause--and the only thing that may stop that is stopping your workout session completely.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
Upset nerves are a primary cause of common muscle cramps. There are three very common and preventable problems that can make your nerves unhappy: dehydration, vitamin deficiencies and electrolyte imbalances, and overdoing your activity without appropriate preparation. Luckily, you can prevent all of these situations. Here's how.
- Stay well hydrated. Being dehydrated, whether from heavy sweating during physical activity, overall poor fluid intake, or use of certain medications, can make you especially vulnerable to muscle cramps during or after physical activity. If you live in a hot, humid area and/or sweat a lot during your exercise, or you’re restricting your food and beverage intake for weight loss, you’ll need to take extra precaution to make sure you’re well-hydrated before you start your activity.
Dehydration problems can start to set in when you lose more than 2% of your body weight through sweating or inadequate fluid intake. If you’re not sure whether you need to worry about this, try weighing yourself before and after a typical workout or activity. If you do lose more than 2% of your weight, you’ll want to drink enough water (on an ounce-for-ounce basis) during your activity to keep your weight loss under that 2% target. And even if you don’t lose that much, make sure you take in enough fluids after your activity to get back to your pre-exercise weight. Typically, drinking a half-liter of ordinary water per pound of lost weight should do the trick. Learn more about your fluid needs during exercise.
- Eat your vitamins and minerals. There’s some evidence that being deficient in vitamins B-1, B-5 and/or B-6 can increase the likelihood of muscle cramps in some people, so keep an eye on your diet to make sure you’re not shorting yourself on your B vitamins. Likewise, a diet that is too low in sodium, potassium or magnesium can cause muscle cramp problems, because your body also loses these electrolytes in sweat. If necessary, you can replenish these minerals during or after extended exercise by using sports drinks with added electrolytes; but unless you do more than an hour of high-intensity exercise, it’s usually better to get these vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, especially if you’re trying to keep your calorie count down.
- Always warm-up and cool-down properly. Muscle fatigue is a major contributor to muscle cramping, and it can be brought on if you skimp on your exercise preparation and cool down periods. To minimize this problem, follow these simple principles:
- Always include five to 10 minutes of a lower intensity warm-up before using a muscle for high-intensity activity, and allow for a similar cool-down period afterwards.
- Avoid over-stretching cold muscles, which can irritate them and reduce performance; save intense stretching for after the exercise or activity, or after your warm-up. Remember: Stretching is not the same thing as a warm-up.
- Start slowly with any activity that uses different muscles than your typical workouts, uses your muscles in a different way (e.g., cycling instead of jogging), or involves significantly longer periods of activity. Build up your time, intensity, and frequency gradually over time.
Muscle cramps are a normal part of life for many exercisers, but they don't have to be. Start using these tips to minimize your cramps in no time.