What is a muscle cramp?
It can happen after intense exercise or in the dark of the night when you do nothing but sleep. A muscle, say your calf, contracts without warning, leaving you with a grimace of pain. You have a muscle cramp. It is an uncontrolled contraction of a muscle or part of a muscle, which squeezes it and causes pain, explains Madhuri Kale, a physiotherapist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Sometimes also called charley horses, muscle cramps usually occur in larger skeletal muscles, such as those in the legs, and are classified as unrelated to exercise or without exercise. The good news is that it is usually temporary and can be relieved by personal care at home.
What causes muscle cramps?
Several factors can contribute to muscle cramps, including the beginning of an intense exercise regimen without warm-up or stretching and then the excessive use of a muscle. Muscle cramps related to exercise are more common than cramps that are not related to exercise, says Mark AW Andrews, director of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, located on the campus of Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
But lack of muscle use and decreased muscle mass can mean that any stress exerted on the muscle is more likely to cause muscle cramps. As a result, as people get older and muscle and nerve function decreases, cramps, including those that are not related to exercise, may occur more frequently. Dehydration can also increase the chances of cramping. Certain conditions such as diabetes and thyroid problems, as well as deficiencies in minerals such as potassium, magnesium or calcium can also increase the likelihood of muscle cramps.
When to see a doctor about cramps.
Cramps usually do not require medical attention. However, if you have had severe or painful cramps frequently, experts recommend that you review it. What might appear to be normal cramps at first, may be something else, such as a condition called dystonia, which is characterized by frequent and longer-lasting involuntary muscle contractions.
Other underlying conditions, such as peripheral arterial disease, characterized by a narrowing of the peripheral arteries, including the legs and arms, can reduce blood flow and cause cramping. Taking certain medications, including statins, diuretics and oral contraceptives, may also increase the risk of muscle cramps. Therefore, discuss with your doctor what you are taking as well.
Remedy: Stretch the muscle.
Fortunately, for most of those who experience occasional muscle cramps, momentary pain can be relieved at home. Just don't try to get through the cramp. "Stop using that muscle. Let it relax and stretch," says Kale.
If the cramp is in the calf, try stretching a runner: "You want to stretch a calf by pointing your fingers toward you," says Kale. While standing, place the front of your foot against a wall or put your foot on a step and drop your heel. "It basically decreases the angle between the toes and the shin," he explains. "So lift your toes toward you, that kind of angle, and that should help relieve a calf cramp." Maintain a stretch that you can tolerate for 30 seconds or more to relieve muscle tension.
Remedy: Massage the muscle.
Another thing you can do immediately if you have a cramp is to gently massage the muscle. "Massage will increase blood flow in an area," Andrews explains. And that is just what is needed to help relieve tense muscles.
"Rub the affected area deeply, as much as you can tolerate that," says Kale. "Do it for a few minutes." But just as you don't want to push a cramp, make sure you massage the muscle in a comfortable way.
Remedy: Apply heat.
Along with massage, applying heat to a narrow muscle is another way to bring more nutrient-rich blood to the area, says Dr. David Kiefer, an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
Kale adds that the increased blood flow caused by the application of a warm pad to the muscle also helps to "eliminate" the by-products of muscle contraction. "Usually, when a muscle contracts, especially during spasms or cramps, it produces chemicals such as bradykinins, H + ions and lactic acid, which cause pain," says Kale. When heat is applied to a sore or aching muscle, it causes blood vessels to dilate or widen. This increases blood flow, which helps transport these chemicals away from the affected muscle, he explains.
Remedy: ice the muscle.
Usually, heat is what you should do when trying to relieve a muscle cramp. However, for persistent pain after the cramp, ice can also help soothe inflammation and relieve muscle pain, explains Kiefer. Just be sure to wrap ice, or an ice pack, in a cloth so you don't apply it directly to your skin.
Liquids may not provide immediate relief from a cramp at the moment. But drinking plenty of water and drinks with electrolytes, which include potassium, calcium, magnesium and salt, should be part of your routine and can help reduce cramping. Just make sure you have a sports drink to look for low sugar options.
Dehydration can increase the chance of cramping, even when you are not exercising. For example, if you are not drinking anything before going to bed, you are more likely to wake up with a charley horse. So while limping towards the sink to have a glass of water might not immediately relieve a cramp, certainly in the long term people should "think about staying hydrated to help the muscles function better (so that they are) less prone to cramping. ". Kiefer says.
Remedy: Consider supplements.
In addition to a complete diet, in some cases where people do not have the nutrients that can increase the risk of cramping, supplements may be recommended. There is some evidence to suggest, for example, that taking a vitamin B complex supplement may help reduce cramping. Similarly, for some people who do not get enough calcium or magnesium and have muscle cramps, a combined calcium and magnesium supplement may be justified, at least temporarily.
You will have to make sure you also get enough vitamin D, as that helps with calcium and magnesium absorption. "It is necessary that these things work together," says Kiefer, "and if they are working together, people can have some improvement in muscle spasms and cramps."
Remedy of last resort: quinine.
An extract from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine is sometimes used to treat muscle cramps. "The classic over-the-counter remedy is for people to only drink tonic water that contains quinine," says Kiefer. "But you can also buy quinine as a supplement or capsules." That said, quinine, which in higher doses is approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a prescription drug to treat malaria, is not a remedy that Kiefer or other health experts routinely recommend for muscle cramps.
Experts say that due to the risk of side effects, the powerful drug, and even the less potent versions of it, should be a measure of last resort for debilitating muscle cramps and be avoided during pregnancy. The FDA has issued repeated warnings that advise against prescribing the quinine drug off the label for leg cramps due to life-threatening side effects, including bleeding and kidney damage.
In summary, here are seven natural ways to relieve muscle cramps.
– Stretch the muscle.
– Apply heat.
– Ice the muscle.
– Consider a supplement.
– Use quinine only as a last resort and after talking with your doctor.