Coping with muscle cramps: Why you don’t have to live with this common pain
Learn how simple self-care measures, such as gentle stretching, can help provide relief.
Has a muscle cramp ever woken you up in the middle of the night? Or stopped you in your tracks in the middle of an activity? Muscle cramps, or “charley horses” as they are sometimes called, are extremely common and occur when muscles involuntarily contract and cannot relax.
The most notorious sites for cramps are the calves, thighs and arch of the foot. Cramps in the hands, arms, abdomen and along the rib cage are also very common.
“Cramps can affect any muscle under your control,” explains Carolyn Quist, DO, an osteopathic physician from Fort Worth, Texas. “When a person experiences a muscle cramp, the muscle that is cramping feels harder than normal to the touch or may even show visible signs of twitching.”
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your well-being. They listen and partner with you to help prevent injury and encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.
Muscle cramps can occur anywhere, anytime to anyone. “No one is immune,” explains Dr. Quist. “You could be young or old, active or sedentary, and you could develop a muscle cramp doing just about anything.” However, Dr. Quist adds that infants, the elderly, the overweight, and athletes are at the greatest risk for muscle cramps.
According to Dr. Quist, some common causes of muscle cramps include:
- Insufficient stretching before exercise.
- Exercising in the heat.
- Muscle fatigue.
Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
“Imbalances in the levels of electrolytes in the blood, such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and phosphate, can also lead to muscle cramps,” Dr. Quist adds.
Treating muscle cramps
The good news is that muscle cramps usually go away within minutes and typically do not warrant medical attention. Here are a few things you can try to get relief:
- Stop doing whatever activity triggered the cramp.
- Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, holding it in a stretched position until the cramp stops.
- For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you’re unable to stand, try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg is in a straightened position. This will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp.
- For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side toward your buttock.
- Apply heat to tense/tight muscles, or cold to sore/tender muscles.
Dr. Quist warns that if cramps are severe, happen frequently, respond poorly to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes like strenuous exercise, you should see your doctor. “They could be a symptom of problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications, or nutrition,” she says.
You can help prevent muscle cramps by doing flexibility exercises before and after your workout to stretch muscle groups most prone to cramping and by drinking plenty of liquids.
“Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable,” Dr. Quist explains.
Though a muscle cramp is common, it is still a real pain. If you think your muscle cramps are too frequent and severe to be normal, it’s best to see your doctor for an evaluation.