Most of us have experienced a muscle cramp or a “Charley Horse” at one time or another. They can be very bothersome because not only do they hurt but a bad one can put you on the sideline? So what are they and how can they be treated and prevented?
A cramp is an involuntary forceful muscle contraction or spasm that does not relax. Any muscle under voluntary control (skeletal muscle) can get a cramp. Muscles that cross a joint are more prone to cramps and the large muscle groups in your legs are the most common including your calves (gastrocnemius), thighs (quadriceps), and hamstrings. Cramps in the feet, hands, abdomen, and rib cage are also very common.
Who gets cramps?
Certainly, anyone can get a cramp, but some people are more prone than others. It can happen during activity or it can occur during rest or even while sleeping!
Cramps associated with heat exertion are more common in infants and young children, people over 65, those who are ill, and if taking certain medications during activity or work.
Of course athletes can get cramps too! Endurance athletes such as marathoners and triathletes are more prone to get cramps. Athletes are also at risk in preseason and early season because muscles are not conditioned and are more easily fatigued. Another group that often gets cramps is older athletes or “weekend warriors”. This is because as we age, muscle loss (atrophy) begins to occur and our muscles cannot work as hard or quickly as they use to. The body also loses some of its sense of thirst and is not as sensitive to changes in temperature.
What causes cramps?
Although the exact cause of muscle cramps is unknown, most researchers believe it results from poor muscle conditioning and fatigue. Inadequate stretching, intense working in intense heat, and depletion of fluid with electrolyte imbalance can also lead to cramping because of an increase in muscle “excitability”.
Most muscle cramps are benign and self limited. However they could be related to a serious medical condition if they don’t respond to simple treatment and are not related to strenuous exercise. Persistent or unusual cramping could be related to hormone problems, poor circulation, or possible side effects to common medications like blood pressure medications, cholesterol lowering drugs, and diuretics. More serious medical diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, spinal nerve compression (radiculopathy), thyroid disease, and cirrhosis of the liver can sometimes present with muscle cramping.
Prevention and Treatment
To avoid cramps, work toward better overall fitness. Be consistent with your exercise routine. Always begin with a warm-up period and be sure to incorporate stretching and flexibility. Stay well hydrated and replace lost electrolytes.
Treatment is pretty basic. Following these simple techniques should do the trick!
- Stop the activity and rest
- Gently massage and stretch the muscle
- Apply ice initially. After activity, heat will increase blood flow and enhance recovery
- Replenish with electrolyte hydration
- Return to activity when rested and pain-free
Don’t let cramps ruin your game! Be smart, listen to your body, and be careful out there!