What are cramps and why do we get them? We often get asked about cramps and how to resolve them. Below is a short summary of what causes cramps and what we can do to help alleviate the symptoms and help manage future episodes.
What is a cramp?
Cramp is a sudden involuntary muscle contraction. It is often temporary and can be quite painful. It can feel like one cannot move the affected muscle. It is usually sudden but resolves on its own. It can affect any muscle, but most commonly affects the legs. The time it lasts can vary, from a few seconds to minutes.
Physiology of cramp
Muscles, when used, contract and relax. Muscles are mainly used to facilitate movement or maintain posture. When a muscle contracts involuntarily and for a sustained period we get a cramp. A muscle in a cramp causes pain and stiffening of the joints associated with the muscle. Muscle cramps can involve multiple muscles that are adjacent to each other or can involve only part of the muscle.
Possible causes of cramps include:
- Dehydration- lack of fluid in the body
- Liver dysfunction- liver diseases, excessive alcohol consumption
- Medications- such as statins, diuretics etc.
- Nerve compression- Mainly in the lumbar spine causing cramping in the legs especially after walking for a period of time
- Lack of minerals/vitamins- common ones are lack of – potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B1 etc.
What can be done about cramps?
Treatment of cramps is usually by stretching the affected muscle/s. It is important to try and relax and take a few deep breaths. Stretching and massaging the affected muscle can help alleviate the pain.
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. If you have a back cramp, try relaxing in the child pose.
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.
Tips to prevent cramps
- Avoid dehydration – You should stay hydrated throughout the day.
- Diet – eating foods rich in magnesium (especially leafy greens) and potassium (bananas, black beans).
- Keep warm – wearing warm socks at night if you have leg cramps,
- Regular exercise – keep your muscles strong and flexible with regular exercises.
- Stretching – stretch before and after extended periods of exercise.
- If cramps last more than 10 minutes it is advisable to see your GP. Stretching can help but if it does not and it is severe the GP may be able to prescribe some medication that may help.
Visit a health care practitioner at Woodside Clinic! Our physiotherapists and osteopaths may be able to prescribe some exercises and stretches.