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How to prevent and treat episodes of muscle cramps

Perhaps you’ve finished a strenuous gym session or a run where you’ve added extra mileage to your usual route; you’ve cooled down and still sporting that post-workout glow when a crippling pain paralyses your foot, calf or hamstring. It’s only a muscle cramp, but it can feel like you’ve been tasered. The situation is often horrendous and pain can be unbearable. Have you ever wondered where muscle cramps have come from? And why are they happening to you?

What we know vs. the great unknown

For a musculoskeletal occurrence aka cramps are fairly common, especially in adults and more frequently-occurring with age. What we do know is that a muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. While there are few things more debilitating and painful than the sudden onset of a muscle cramp, an episode will usually subside on its own. The duration of muscle cramps varies depending on the individual and can last from seconds to hours, and in extreme cases even days.

Electrolytes keep your nerves and muscles in motion

A common contributing factor of muscle cramps, although unproven as the fundamental cause, is the depletion of fluids and electrolytes that occurs during exercise.

When you exercise, your body sweats, emitting water and minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride. These minerals are known as electrolytes – chemicals in your body that play an important role in the functioning of healthy bodies. Electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, which allow your muscles to contract. When these electrolytes are depleted, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged.

Preventative measures to avoid muscle cramps

If you’re leading an active lifestyle and regularly suffering muscle cramps, here are a few tips that might help reduce their frequency or stop them all together.

  • Train wisely for your race – Resist the urge to push your body to (or beyond) its limit. Most muscle cramps happen after you push yourself to the point of exhaustion. If you monitor the intensity and duration of your training, and reduce it if need be, you’ll be less likely to cramp.
  • Light passive stretching – Research indicates that this can help muscle cramps subside faster than rest alone. The goal of this stretching is not to improve flexibility, just to ‘pat and pull’ gently on the muscles to send a message to the brain that it’s okay to relax.
  • Rest – When muscle cramps strike, the most effective way to ensure they go away is rest – avoid exerting yourself, especially if you find the cramps are recurring in the same muscle group.
  • Stay hydrated – Research has shown that dehydration contributes to the cause of muscle cramps, but staying hydrated is key to many other health benefits such as regulating appetite and sleeping patterns and maintaining energy levels.

Medical conditions as contributing factors

There are certain diseases or conditions which have been linked to muscle cramps, these include:

  • Atherosclerosis – a condition characterised by narrowed arteries due to the formation of fatty plaques. Muscles are more likely to cramp if their blood supply is inadequate.
  • Sciatica – pain in the buttock and leg caused by pressure on nerves in the lower back. In some cases, the irritated nerve may prompt the associated muscles to contract.
  • Medications – some medical conditions require the regular use of fluid pills (diuretics). These drugs can interfere with the body’s mineral balance and contribute to cramping.

If you’re experiencing the following symptoms relating to muscle cramps, please visit your doctor or consult with our physiotherapy team:

  • Effect on muscles causing serious discomfort
  • Muscle weakness
  • Ongoing leg pain
  • Leg swelling and redness
  • Frequent muscle cramps
  • Cramps not associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise.

If you have any have concerns regarding current pain of muscle cramps or experiencing regular muscle cramps, feel free to make an appointment with our team at Fairfield Physiotherapy and Sports Injuries Centre for exercise prescription, treatment or simply for further advice.