Have you ever been awakened by a muscle cramp? Or gotten a cramp during a workout? Or maybe after you’ve been standing for a long time?? In this article I’ll discuss what causes muscle cramps, how to get rid of one quickly, and how to prevent them in the future.
Let’s begin by defining what a muscle cramp is, aka muscle spasm aka Charlie horse. A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. It can happen at night, when you’re exercising, or when you’re standing or sitting for a long time, or sometimes for no reason at all! Statistically 60% of all adults experience muscle cramps from time to time. The frequency goes up as we age, and women suffer more from nighttime cramps than men. If you’ve ever experienced a muscle cramp you know it can be painful, annoying and sometimes a little scary. I used to get muscle cramps all the time but now I RARELY get them. I can’t even remember the last time I got one. So I’ll be sharing from my own personal research and experience, and what I do to prevent muscle cramps.
What causes muscle cramps? The truth is we don’t know for sure. The prevailing theory is that they are caused by dehydration causing an electrolyte imbalance. However all studies supporting this theory have not shown a direct cause-and-effect relation. Meaning: even though dehydration and electrolyte imbalance may play a role in muscle cramps, it’s not the sole cause. A more recent theory is that muscle cramps occur due to an altered reflex control mechanism due to neuromuscular fatigue. In other words muscle fatigue can cause your reflexes to over-respond. This may explain why cramps tend to happen only in working muscles and why stretching can relieve cramps immediately. Jeff Cavalier of Athlean-X says that cramping is due to muscle weakness in the affected muscles, and my own theory is that it may have to do with muscle imbalances. A muscle imbalance is when one muscle of an opposing muscle group is tight from over use and the other is weakened due to lack of use. In my theory the tight muscle is more prone to cramping. In addition to these possible causes, there are other risk factors such as: certain medications, pregnancy, a pinched nerve or spinal injury, liver cirrhosis or getting dialysis.
ALL of these different variables may play a role in causing muscle cramps. But the honest truth is we don’t know for sure exactly what causes them in every situation. But don’t be discouraged, in spite of that fact there are many avenues of treatment and prevention you can pursue. Let’s start with what to do when you get a cramp.
Stretching. The number one treatment is stretching the cramped muscle and gently massaging it to help it relax. Stretch the muscle for 30 seconds at a time until the cramping stops. Applying heat may help the muscles relax, and some people find a warm bath or shower eases the cramp.
Prevention. In my opinion the best way to reduce the chance of muscle cramps is by avoiding all the common contributing factors the best you can. That means…
- Stay hydrated. I’ve talked a lot in the past about getting enough water, well here’s one more reason to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Make sure you have plenty of electrolytes in your body. Electrolytes include: sodium (which most of us get plenty of) potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Personally I use potassium chloride, a salt substitute, on my food and eat bananas which are high in potassium. I drink milk almost every day, which has calcium. And I take a magnesium supplement to make sure I get enough magnesium.
- Stretching regularly. Stretch and warm up your muscles properly before exercise. Also stretch after exercise and before bed. I stretch every day whether I’m exercising or not.
- Avoid overexertion. Since neuromuscular fatigue is associated with cramping, it’s wise to avoid going too hard working out. I’m not saying don’t work hard, just know your limits, and if certain muscles are more prone to cramping, or you’re not feeling your best, listen to your body, know when to slow down or go a little easier.
- Alternative medicine. Some suggest taking B complex vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin E can help to manage cramps, but more research is needed to confirm this benefit. Ginger, which is known to stimulate circulation, is the most common herb for leg cramps. Chamomile and other herbs can help your muscles relax. Turmeric and other substances that have anti-inflammatory properties also can help. And the amino acid L-Taurine has solid research showing it is effective treating muscle cramps in patients with liver cirrhosis.
In case you’re wondering what I do personally to avoid muscle cramps, I just basically listed them all. I drink water all day long, I stretch constantly, especially before bed, I supplement with vitamins and minerals, specifically magnesium and L-Taurine. I also take turmeric and bromelain for their anti-inflammatory effects.
If I had to pick the most important one, it would have to be stretching. All these other things play a role in preventing muscle cramps but I believe keeping flexible and strong is the main key to not having cramps. I highly recommend having a stretching routine to go along with your fitness and nutrition program. If you need a little guidance I put together the S&M Safe Stretching Guide to help you! It has 8 tips for safe stretching, along with instructions and illustrations showing you how to safely stretch. It’s free, my gift to you. To get this free resource just click on the link below.
Thanks for reading, and God bless you!