Muscle Cramps: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

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Have you ever experienced a “charley horse”? If yes, you probably still remember the sudden, tight and intense pain caused by a muscle locked in spasm, causing you to jump out of bed or to your knees on the basketball court. But however you experience them, muscle cramping is common and can be treated effectively and prevented to occur as frequently in the future.

A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of a muscle, part of a muscle, or several muscles that usually act together. If the spasm is forceful and sustained, it becomes a cramp. Most people describe a muscle cramp as a feeling of tightness in the muscle with a hard lump of muscle tissue underneath the skin in the area of the cramp.

Cramps and spasms can affect any muscle and are most common in the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Cramps can also occur in the feet, hands, arms, and lower back as well.

Causes

Common as they are and painful as they can be, there is a still mystery in the exact cause of muscle spasms and cramps. Some researchers believe that inadequate stretching and muscle fatigue can lead to cramps. According to the University of Michigan, other possible factors include a low level of fitness, overexertion (especially in intense heat), stress, and depletion of electrolytes through excessive sweating or dehydration. Certain diuretic medications can also cause cramping due to a loss of sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

Treatment

Typically, muscle cramps require no treatment other than stretching the affected muscles and medicines are not generally needed to treat an ordinary muscle cramp. Gentle and gradual stretching, along with massage, may ease the pain and hasten recovery.

When a muscle spasm or cramp is the result of an injury, applying ice packs for the first two to three days may help alleviate the pain. Spasms that last a long time may be treated with moist heat for 20 minutes several times a day.

If you tend to get muscle cramps during exercise, make sure you drink enough fluids, before, during, and after your workout, followed by a warm Epsom salt bath to treat the affected muscles.

Tips for Prevention via The American Chiropractic Association

The best prevention of muscle spasms and cramping is improving diet and lifestyle. Here are some helpful tips for your wellness:

  1. Eliminate or limit sugar and caffeine from the diet, and increase consumption of fiber and protein. In addition, remember to eat plenty of calcium- and magnesium- rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables, yogurt, legumes, whole grains, tofu, and Brazil nuts. High-potassium foods, including bananas, avocados, lima beans, and fish, may also be helpful.
  2. Before and after you exercise, stretch muscle groups that tend to cramp.
  3. Incorporate strengthening exercises or affected muscle groups into your fitness routine.
  4. Avoid dehydration. To prevent dehydration, consume plenty of fluids and foods high in water such as fruits and vegetables.
  5. Avoid excess sodium and soda (high in phosphoric acid), as they can leach calcium.
  6. Avoid or limit chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol, which can interfere with magnesium absorption.
  7. Improve your posture. For example, you may have mid-back spasms after sitting at a computer desk for too long in an awkward position.
  8. Although no concrete scientific evidence is officially documented, Vitamin E has been said to help minimize cramp occurrence. However, since Vitamin E has many other beneficial health effects and is not toxic in usual doses, taking 400 units of daily could be considered.

Discuss with your doctor of chiropractic if your cramps are severe, happen frequently, respond poorly to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes like strenuous exercise.

If your muscle cramps are associated with a specific medical condition, seek medical advice promptly to address the underlying health problem for the cramps to subside. These could indicate a possible problem with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications, and/or nutrition.

Sources:

http://www.acatoday.org/content_css.cfm?CID=3692

http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer.asp

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