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Muscle cramps

Muscle cramps
Getting a muscle cramp, often called a ‘charley horse’ can be very painful and can happen during or after you exercise. So what and why do we get muscle cramps and what can we do to stop or reduce this from happening?

What is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is when the muscle goes into an involuntary spasm and most commonly occurs in your foot, calves and legs, but could happen to any muscle. The muscle will contract by itself often very strongly and become tight and hard and can last from a few seconds to many minutes.

What causes muscle cramps?

Science isn’t exactly sure what causes it or why muscle cramps happen. There are several medical conditions and even medicines that can cause it, however there are a number of other non-medical possibilities that may trigger muscle cramps, but often it will occur due to a muscle being tired and fatigued through intense exercise or being held in a contracted or tense position for too long.

Many people will have experienced a muscle cramp while working out, known as exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC), especially those doing endurance or long sports events. You could also get a cramp for up to 6-8 hours after you exercise. When a muscle gets tired or is worked in a limited range of motion under tension it can have a neuromuscular effect that can create muscle spasms. This effect can cause our bodies not to be able to send electrical signals effectively through the body, essentially deadening our nerve connections and so our muscles are not able to get the right signals for contracting and relaxing our muscles in the way they should.

What could possibly make the matter more likely to happen is if you are dehydrated or have an electrolyte imbalance. Working out in hot weather can also make it worse, as you sweat more and so you lose more water and electrolytes. The electrolyte imbalance can reduce sodium and potassium in your system and this can affect the signal required to contract and relax a muscle.

As stated science hasn’t got the answer as to why this happens yet, and it is more than likely a combination of all the above that can affect individuals at different rates.

What can you do to stop or minimise muscle cramps from happening?

As there are several types of and possibilities for cramps to occur, the following is a general guideline to help you with some of the possible causes. However, if your muscle cramps last a long time and/or occur frequently, please seek medical advice.

Firstly try to drink plenty of water throughout the day, eat more food with potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium to replace electrolytes lost through sweating during exercise.

Warm up properly before your workout and stretch and cool down after.

Workout within your limits, don’t overwork a muscle, a fatigued muscle is more likely to suffer from a cramp.

Stay cool and drink plenty of fluid during your workout.

Also being more flexible can also possibly help reduce muscle cramps, as tight muscles are more likely to cramp. Stretch tight muscles and massage them regularly to reduce the chances of them from cramping.

What to do if you get a muscle cramp?

Stop working out and stretch the muscle, as stretching the muscle will inhibit the signal to keep it contracted, that is why they often relieve a cramped muscle. A gentle massage will also help, as this will help relax the muscle.

Apply heat or take a warm bath, as heat is preferable for muscle cramps and can help reduce stiffness and increase blood flow, while ice should be used for painful injuries that are inflamed/swelling.

Finally, ensure you are hydrated and replace lost electrolytes.

Seek medical advice for persistent or very painful issues.