There’s a good chance that almost every person will experience the feeling of muscle cramps at some point in their life. They are actually quite common.
Muscle cramps, sometimes called muscle spasms, present as an involuntary tightening or contraction within the muscle. They are sometimes referred to as “Charley horses.”
Leg cramps are among the most common forms of muscle cramps. These typically occur within the calves or thighs. Thankfully, there are some ways to help stop them fast when they do occur.
What Are Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are defined as sudden muscle contraction or spasm. Often, these involuntary muscle contractions occur suddenly and without warning.
While cramps typically affect one area, they can also occur in multiple muscles at a time. Muscle cramps can be quite uncomfortable, but the severity of discomfort differs from person to person.
What Are Potential Causes of Muscle Cramps?
Here are some examples of potential causes for muscle cramps:
- Dehydration – Lack of proper hydration is a common cause of muscle cramps. Typically, this occurs as a result of body fluid loss during strenuous exercise. This is one reason why muscle cramps are so common in athletes. This can also occur due to alcohol or caffeine consumption or the use of diuretics.
- Electrolyte levels – Closely related to dehydration is low electrolyte levels or low levels of minerals such as calcium and potassium. While water intake is vital, some studies suggest that oral rehydration with electrolytes may be more important for alleviating exercise-related muscle cramps.
- Muscle strain – Overuse of muscles, muscle fatigue, or muscle strain can also lead to muscle cramps. This is usually the result of strenuous activity during exercise.
There are certainly more causes for muscle cramps, such as pregnancy, certain medical conditions, issues impacting nerves, medications, and aging, but the ones above are the most common.
Muscle cramps can occur throughout the body, including the legs, hands, feet, arms, abdomen, and rib cage. Leg cramps are a common occurrence for those that are pregnant.
How To Stop Muscle Cramps
Generally, healthcare providers can diagnose muscle cramps by asking questions that pertain to medical history and medications.
Also, they will usually ask questions about the severity and longevity of symptoms, when they occur, and other associated symptoms to help pinpoint a cause.
Typically, most muscle cramps do not require medical attention, and you may find relief with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Thankfully, there are also some ways to help prevent and alleviate muscle cramps naturally with home remedies.
Here are a few of the most common ways to help stop muscle cramps in their tracks.
Strenuous exercise is sometimes associated with muscle cramps. Stretching before exercise is important to help get the blood flowing to the key muscle groups. However, stretching the affected area can also help stop or improve muscle cramps when they occur.
If a muscle cramp occurs during an activity (e.g., exercise), it is best to stop the activity and stretch out the affected muscle group. This is the most common way to help get immediate relief. The type of stretching depends on the muscle group in question, such as quadriceps or buttocks.
For example, for muscle cramps in the calves or hamstring:
- Lie down, pulling and pointing your toes towards your head with your knee straight.
- Hold each position for a few seconds or when you feel muscle cramp relief.
You can also use resistance straps for stretching the calf muscle and hamstrings. Foam rollers and exercise balls can also help you stretch muscles in your back.
Massaging the Muscle
In addition to stretching the affected area, massaging the muscle can also help bring relief. You can do this by simply massaging the muscle in spasm with your hands using gentle pressure. For hard-to-reach areas (e.g., back), foam rollers can aid the massage.
Applying Heat and Cold
Both heat and cold applications have also been known to soothe the discomfort of muscle cramps. Typically, applying heat (using a heating pad or warm towel) directly to the cramping muscle can help bring some relief. Once the discomfort subsides, utilizing cold compresses (e.g. ice pack or cold pack) can also help loosen the muscle.
Helping Prevent Muscle Cramps
There are also some steps you can take to help prevent muscle cramps before they start.
Adequate hydration is a key component for overall health, but it is also important to help prevent muscle cramps, especially if you exercise regularly. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help prevent dehydration — which can lead to muscle cramps.
The daily water intake varies from individual and is based on activity and lifestyle. Typically, at least four to six cups are recommended for healthy individuals. Those that exercise regularly will require more.
Getting Adequate Amounts of Electrolytes and Minerals
While water intake is important, maintaining electrolyte balance is equally as important for preventing muscle cramps. An electrolyte imbalance can lead to muscle cramps, and many sports drinks are fortified with electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, and sodium for this reason.
Ensuring you get adequate amounts of magnesium is also essential as magnesium imbalance and deficiency could contribute to muscle cramps. Leafy greens, bananas, and black beans are great sources of key minerals that may play a role in muscle cramp prevention.
Muscle cramps, or muscle spasms, are involuntary contractions of the muscle. The exact cause of muscle cramps can vary, from dehydration to the use of certain medications. Thankfully, getting relief from muscle cramp discomfort can be done naturally.
Quick relief from muscle cramps can be done through stretching and massaging the affected muscle group. Muscle cramp prevention typically involves maintaining adequate hydration and getting the proper amounts of essential minerals.