What Is Muscle Cramps?
An involuntary contraction of a muscle which occurs unexpectedly and doesn’t relax is known as a muscle cramp. When we make use of the voluntary muscles (muscles that can be controlled) in our arms and legs, they contract and relax alternately as the limbs are moved.
The muscles in the neck, head and trunk contract and relax and help to maintain posture. When a muscle (or few fibres of the muscle) contracts involuntarily, it is said to be in “spasm” and if the spasm is sustained and forceful, then it becomes a cramp. Muscle cramps cause the palpable or visible hardening of the muscle that is involved.
Any muscle(s) that can be controlled voluntarily (skeletal muscle) can be affected by cramps. Cramps can affect the entire muscle or part of a muscle or many muscles in a group. Muscle cramps can last for a few seconds or sometimes much longer and it can recur several times until it subsides.
The most common muscle groups that get cramps are:
- Gastrocnemius (back of calf or lower leg)
- Quadriceps (front of thigh)
- Hamstrings (back of thigh)
- Cramps in the abdomen, alongside the rib cage, arms, hands and feet are very common.
Muscle cramps are extremely common and everyone experiences cramps in their lifetime. Muscle cramps are quite common in adults and increase in frequency with age. The cramping of feet and legs (nocturnal leg cramps) and calf cramps (also known as Charley horse) are quite common.
What Are The Symptoms Of Muscle Cramps?
Symptoms of muscle cramps include:
- Local pain
- Twitching of muscle
- Cramped muscle becomes hard
- Disturbs function of affected limb
What Are The Causes Of Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are caused due to various reasons such as:
- Exercising, overuse of the muscles, injury.
- Due to cold temperature, especially cold water.
- Medical conditions like kidney disease, thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, peripheral arterial disease (problems with blood flow).
- Sitting for prolonged periods of time, standing for a long time on a hard surface, placing legs in awkward positions when sleeping.
- Reduced levels of minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc.
- Medicines like diuretics, statins, birth control pills, statins, etc.
- Nerve compression (lumbar stenosis).
- Insufficient blood supply.
What Are The Things One Should Do To Manage Muscle Cramps?
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated to prevent cramps.
- When you have cramps, stretching the muscle that is involved can help to stop the cramps.
- If you have cramps in your legs, walking around or jiggling your leg can help to relieve the cramps.
- Massaging the muscles that are cramped can help to relax the cramp.
- Applying a hot pad or having a hot soak can help to relieve the cramp.
- If the cramps are due to dehydration, then replacing the fluids, especially electrolytes can help to relieve the cramps.
- Riding a bike can help to stretch and condition your muscles.
- Ensure that you stretch your muscles before and after a workout and before you go to bed at night to prevent cramps.
- If you are doing some activity that triggers the cramp stop doing the particular activity.
What Are The Things One Should Avoid To Manage Muscle Cramps?
- Avoid increasing the amount of exercise suddenly, increase it gradually every week.
- If you have a cramp, don’t ignore the cramp and keep exercising. Stop until the cramp subsides.
- Avoid putting ice on the cramped muscle, as it will keep the muscle still in cramp. Post a workout or after any major injury, putting ice helps to decrease the muscle hangover, but to relax the muscle, increase blood flow and loosen the muscle fibres, applying heat is better.
- When the muscle is cramped, it may be difficult t find a comfortable position to rest. Place the cramped muscle or joint in a position where it stays at normal length or even slightly stretched. Resting it in a shortened position can cause it to cramp again.
- Avoid strength training the cramped muscle as it will worsen the cramp.
- If you have a lot of cramping, then it may be due to some other medical condition. If you suffer from muscle cramps regularly, then see a doctor.
What Are The Best Foods For Muscle Cramps?
- Eat healthy foods that are rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium especially if you’re pregnant.
- Foods such as tomato juice, dried fruits, milk, citrus juice, avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, fish, dairy, etc. are rich in potassium and help to break down carbs and build muscle and reduce muscle cramps.
- Eating foods such as cottage cheese, feta cheese, celery, beetroot, pesto, carrots, olives, smoked fish and meats, Himalayan rock salt and sea salt can help to replenish the sodium in the body and prevent cramps.
- Calcium is very important for the contractions of the smooth and skeletal muscles. Eat foods that contain calcium such as dark green leafy vegetable, nuts, dairy, canned fish with bones like salmon, sardines, anchovies, seeds, etc to prevent muscle cramps.
- Foods rich in magnesium such as soybeans, legumes, avocado, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, cereal, brown rice, dark chocolate, cocoa, bananas, dried fruit, yoghurt, etc. help in the proper contraction and relaxation of muscles and help to prevent muscle cramps.
What Are The Worst Foods For Muscle Cramps?
- Avoid drinking alcohol, as it causes dehydration and the muscle cramps to worsen.
- Avoid tea, coffee and soda as the caffeine contained in these constrict the blood vessels, reduce circulation in the muscles and worsen muscle cramps. Drink water, herbal tea or decaf instead.
What Are The Medicines For Muscle Cramps?
What Are The Tips To Manage Muscle Cramps?
- If you have a tendency to get muscle cramps while exercising, drink at least 2 cups of water before every workout and around 250ml during the exercise sessions. If you sweat a lot drink a sports drink that contains potassium and sodium to replenish the lost electrolytes.
- If you get cramps while sleeping, try to avoid sleeping with your toes pointed and avoid tucking in the sheet very tightly, as this bends the toes downwards and causes cramps.
- Taking a warm shower or soaking in a bath with added Epsom salts can help to relax the muscles and relieve muscle cramps.
- Wintergreen oil contains methyl salicylate that helps to stimulate blood flow and relieve pain. Mixing wintergreen oil and vegetable oil in the ratio 1:4 and massaging it into the muscle cramp several times in a day can help to relieve the cramp.
- Taking vitamin E helps to improve blood flow and prevents leg cramps at night.
- Chamomile herb contains flavonoids and anti-inflammatory properties. Massage chamomile oil into the affected muscles to relax sore muscles and this also provide relief from muscular spasms.
- Drinking cherry juice can help to relieve inflammation and muscle pain, as cherries have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin that is a natural muscle relaxant and can help to reduce muscle spasms. You can add it to your food, use it in the capsule form or apply a cream containing it, on the affected muscle.
- Apple cider vinegar is high in potassium and helps to relieve muscle cramps. Mixing one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a glass of water and drinking this once a day can help to prevent muscle cramps. If you suffer from night-time cramps, mix a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with honey and a tablespoon of calcium lactate with half a glass of warm water and drink this half an hour before going to bed for relief.
- Having a teaspoon of yellow mustard with a glass of warm milk can help to treat muscle cramps, as yellow mustard contains acetic acid that can help to relieve soreness and pain.
- Clove oil can help to reduce inflammation and swelling in muscles as it has anti-inflammatory properties. You can warm some clove oil and massage it for 5 minutes on the affected muscle for relief.