By Shannon Harmon, DPT, Linglestown, PA Center
A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of one (or more) muscles that makes it difficult to use the muscle(s). A cramp can involve part or all of a single muscle or several muscles that work together.
Typically painful but of short duration, a cramp can occur with activity, at rest or at night which may partially be dependent on specific cause of spasm/cramp. The two main classifications are spontaneous and exercise-associated muscle cramps.
- Women experience muscle cramps more frequently than men (56 percent in women to 40 percent in men).
- About 75 percent of muscle cramp episodes occur at night.
- Most episodes occur in the calf, hamstring or quadriceps muscles.
- Pregnant women, specifically during the final trimester, are prone to muscle cramps (as high at 75 percent).
- Participants in strenuous exercise, such as marathons and triathlons, are more susceptible to exercise-associated muscle cramps.
- Muscle cramps can last as little as a few seconds but, on average, endure for two minutes in children and eight to nine minutes in adults.
- Muscle fatigue/overuse – Common when the body is deconditioned or utilizing muscles to stabilize an injury, overexertion can deplete the muscle’s oxygen supply. When a muscle lacks adequate oxygen, a spasm can occur.
- Dehydration – Can occur during strenuous exercise in hot temperatures, which can cause fluid and electrolyte loss. Such imbalances can decrease the function of normal muscle contraction.
- Inadequate nutrition – Mineral/vitamin deficiencies (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium) can lead to muscle cramps.
- Nerve compression – Conditions such as spinal stenosis can cause muscle cramps.
- Aging – The normal loss of muscle can cause the remaining muscle to become overused/overstressed more easily.
- Massage – Gently massaging the muscle will help it to relax.
- Fluid and electrolyte replacement – If the muscle cramp is related to dehydration, replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes will allow for normalized muscle contraction and relaxation.
- Heat promotes muscle relaxation — Use of heat x 20 minutes maximum would be recommended.
- Stop the activity that is causing the muscle cramp
- Stretch the muscle involved. Here are a few stretching strategies to consider:
Tips for stretching:
- Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three to five times.
- For a calf stretch, you should feel a light pull in your calf down toward your heel.
- For a hamstring stretch, you should feel a light pull in the back of your thighs and behind your knee.
- For a quad stretch, you should feel a light pull in the front of your thigh.
Prevent muscle spasms:
- Avoid dehydration. While considering factors such as age, sex, level of activity, weather, overall health, etc., be aware of recommended daily water intake. Be sure to replenish fluids during and after activity to maintain an adequate fluid balance for muscle to function properly.
- Develop a stretching regimen with focus on muscles typically used for extended periods of time. This is appropriate for spontaneous-spasm and exercise-associated muscle cramps.
- Eat a well-rounded diet, consuming appropriate amounts of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium.
Sources to reference for further information:
Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):279-283. doi:10.1177/1941738109357299.