Muscle cramps can be a nuisance, a pain, or complete agony, depending on the situation.
It seems that there are three kinds:
- The kind that wakes you up from a sound sleep with a sudden tightness and pain, probably in your calf muscle.
- The kind that comes on with a lot of exertion, especially in the heat. This would apply to people who do physical work outside, or athletes competing on a hot day.
- This one comes on when doing something a bit unusual for you during a workout or massage session. For example, on your back, feet flat on the ground and bringing your hips up into a bridge. Often the hamstrings will cramp as you push yourself up. Another one: some of us will get a cramp in the bottom of our foot when asked to point the toes.
Why does this happen?
If there is an answer to that, can it give us a clue as to how to prevent any of the above scenarios?
Back in the day, meaning the early and mid 1900’s, muscle cramps of all types were thought to come from dehydration, heavy exertion in the heat, an electrolyte imbalance, standing too long on a hard surface, or sitting too long. Those things do appear to put you at greater risk for cramping up.
In addition, there was the discovery that some people are “salty sweaters”. These folks apparently lose more salt in their sweat than most people, which was thought to put them at risk for cramping. However, the idea of replacing salt with tablets has not been shown to be helpful. It was also thought that drinking quinine water was a sure cure for a nasty cramp. This too eventually fell out of favor as a potential cure.
At the end of the day, they really weren’t sure why they happen, and the “cures” seemed to work for some and not for others.
Now scroll forward to the present.
Not much has changed!
Guess what? Experts are still not sure what causes muscle cramps. HOWEVER, they have gotten a little fancier with putting forth theories about how cramps happen. Now experts are beginning to think that cramps are not necessarily caused by dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance.
Instead, it is the result of an altered neurological control of muscle contractions, most likely brought on by fatigue. Most of the studies in recent years have found that this is most likely the case, because STRETCHING has been found to be the most reliable way to both prevent and alleviate a muscle cramp.
Please see the above picture of a calf stretch to show you the most useful stretch for the lower leg (the most common cramp area).
Treatment when you have a cramp:
- Gently stretch the muscle.
- Massage the area.
- Gently stretch the muscle several times during the day.
- Make sure to move around during the day (this has a way of stretching your muscles as you move around and helping your blood circulate as well).
- Before exercise or activity, make sure you warm up for 10 minutes or so (not just a quickie, but a take-your-time kind of warm-up). If you will notice, a good warm-up gives the same benefits as moving around more. Namely, moving muscles, stretching them out, and improving your circulation.
- Stay hydrated. Always a good idea anyway.
Bottom line: Keep moving, keep stretching, and keep drinking enough water. And, I would like to add in one more thing, based on my years of experience as a trainer. If you cramp during an exercise move, it probably means that your body is not used to that move. You need to back off, stretch if you can, and shift how you are doing the exercise or movement to include surrounding muscles.
Using the bridging example above, push through your heels and use your butt muscle to get the lift. This will take some of the pressure off the hamstrings to perform this movement. Result? No hamstring cramp.
Whatever theory or research line of thought you follow, these suggestions and techniques will help.
All the best,
© 2018-2019 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.