Muscle cramps are caused by involuntary spasms lasting only a few seconds or as long as 15 minutes. The cramp can often recur in the same muscle(s) repeatedly. A cramp can occur after an intense workout session in which the muscle has undergone injury (i.e., muscle fiber tearing). A cramp in this case may suddenly occur when the particular muscle has been relaxed for a period of time (e.g., quadricep cramps may occur after heavy leg presses after sitting for awhile afterward).
The exact cause of muscle cramps is still not entirely known although several reasons may include:
- Dehydration due to excessive perspiration
- Muscle injury in which case persistent cramping may occur as a protective mechanism (i.e., involuntary splinting)
- Muscle fatigue
- Mineral depletion (e.g., sodium, calcium, magnesium)
Recommended treatment for muscle cramps involves stretching and gently massaging the affected muscle. Applying an ice pack is advisable for serious cramps. In addition, you should drink water and/or a sports drink (e.g., Gatorade) to replenish possible excessive fluid loss and electrolyte depletion (e.g., sodium, calcium, magnesium).
Recommended prevention for muscle cramps involves ingesting maltodextrin or dextrose, quick absorbing sugars recommended pre- and post-workout to help prevent muscle cramps. Also, be sure to adequately warm-up your muscles (i.e., walking, biking, stair stepping) to promote blood circulation and nutrient flow within your muscles. Taking adequate time to recover (e.g., 48 to 72 hours) between workouts may help to lessen muscle cramps. Avoid stretching cold muscles before workouts to avoid possible muscle tearing! Be sure to perform static stretches on muscles exercised immediately following your workouts.
The reality is that little is known regarding the cause(s) of muscle cramps.
MYTH: Muscle cramps are caused by an imbalance of electrolytes. If you are experiencing muscle cramps regularly (e.g., calves) while doing exercise, you may consider increasing your potassium and decreasing your sodium intake. Translation: eat more foods like dried apricots, beans, spinach, potatoes, and avocados and eat less foods like bacon, ham, sausage, biscuits, and most commercial cereals. Insufficient potassium may lead to fatigue, cramping and muscle damage. Physical and mental stress, excessive sweating, alcohol, coffee, and a high intake of salt and sugar will deplete your potassium level. But having said this, there really is not enough evidence to support that a lack of potassium is the cause of a muscle cramp. MYTH: Muscle cramps are caused by dehydration or sodium loss. Muscle cramps can occur among people who work out--especially in hot, humid conditions. But people who experience cramps are not more likely to be dehydrated. Drinking lots of water or Gatorade, for instance, will not necessarily ward off cramps thought to be caused by sodium loss.
MYTH: Muscle cramps can be prevented by taking vitamin or mineral supplements. There is no evidence to indicate this to be true.Here are the facts:
FACT: Muscle cramps can occur in people who are unfit and/or extremely fatigued.FACT: Muscle cramps can occur in people who take certain medications and have particular medical conditions (e.g., atherosclerosis).
FACT: Muscle cramps can be prevented by proper training and by gradual increases in exercise intensity.
What should you do if you experience a muscle cramp in the calf?
Flex your ankle so that you stretch the calf muscle. This will be very painful but this will ameliorate the pain more quickly. Massaging the affected area may also help. Also, to reduce the onset of calf cramps consider performing the runner stretch:
- Stand two to three feet from a wall with toes pointed to wall
- Move one foot forward about one foot from the wall
- Lean forward with forearms resting against the wall
- Ensure the rear leg is straight with the back heel resting on the floor
- Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds
- Switch legs and repeat