WHAT ARE MUSCULAR CRAMPS?
A muscle cramp is an uncontrollable and painful spasm of a muscle. Any muscle can be affected, but the muscles of the calf and foot are particularly prone. A cramp can last for varying periods of time and generally resolves by itself. The exact cause of cramp is unknown but risk factors may include poor physical condition, mineral and electrolyte imbalances and tight, inflexible muscles.
Cramps are usually harmless but may sometimes be symptomatic of an underlying medical disorder, such as atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). Regular cramping or severe cramping that lasts longer than a few minutes should always be investigated by your doctor.
The most commonly involved muscle groups are:
- Back of the lower leg/calf
- Back of the thigh (hamstrings)
- Front of the thigh (quadriceps)
- Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.
Muscle cramps are common and may be stopped by stretching the muscle. The cramping muscle may feel hard or bulging.
WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS?
The symptoms of a muscle cramp include:
- Sudden sensation of uncontrollable and painful spasms in the muscle
- Muscle twitching.
WHEN TO GO FOR MEDICAL HELP?
Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care. However, see your doctor if your cramps:
- Cause severe discomfort
- Are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes
- Are associated with muscle weakness
- Happen frequently
- Don’t improve with self-care
- Aren’t associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES?
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period of time may result in a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the exact cause of a muscle cramp isn’t known.
Although most muscle cramps are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
Inadequate blood supply. Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you’re exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising.
Nerve compression. Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position — such as you would employ when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you — may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
Mineral depletion. Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Diuretics — medications often prescribed for high blood pressure — may also deplete these minerals.
HOW TO TREAT?
SELF-CARE: Self –care measures can be adopted with the stretching exercise recommended by your Doctor. Making sure you stay well hydrated also can help. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor might prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.
ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: Taking vitamin B complex supplements is suggested by some to help manage leg cramps. However, more research is needed to confirm this benefit.
LIFE STYLE AND HOME REMEDIES: If you have a cramp, these actions may provide relief:
Stretch and massage. Stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub it to help it relax. For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you’re unable to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair with your affected leg extended. Try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg remains in a straightened position. This will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp. For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.
Apply heat or cold. Use a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath or directing the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle also can help. Alternatively, massaging the cramped muscle with ice may relieve pain.
HOW TO PREVENT?
Suggestions on how to reduce the likelihood of muscle cramp include:
- Increase your level of physical fitness.
- Incorporate regular stretching into your fitness routine.
- Warm up and cool down thoroughly whenever you exercise or play sport.
- Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise.
- Make sure your diet is nutritionally adequate, and include plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- A regular massage may help to reduce muscle tension.
- Wear properly fitted shoes and avoid high heels.