Though they are harmless and do not involve injury, few things are as painful as common muscle cramps. A cramp, also called a spasm, is a sudden involuntary painful shortening of a muscle. Cramps can occur in any muscle at any time, but they most often occur in the thigh, calf, or foot and usually while you are lying in bed, playing sports, or exercising.
Nighttime calf cramps usually strike in bed at night as a result of contracting the calf muscles by suddenly pointing your toes or by lying with your feet in that position. (Swimmers, who kick with their toes sharply pointed, can suffer calf spasms similar to nocturnal leg cramps.) One study showed that 70 percent of people over the age of 50 get this nocturnal variety. In general, as you age you may find that you experience leg cramps more frequently.
Symptoms of Muscle Cramps
- A sharp, painful spasm or contraction (tightening) in a muscle. The affected muscle may feel hard to the touch (a knot).
- With more severe cramps a visible twitching of the muscle beneath the skin can occur.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Cramps remain something of a mystery, and it’s seldom possible to pinpoint why they happen. Inactivity and activity can both cause cramps.
Athletes’ cramps occur for a number of reasons. An imbalance in the blood of minerals called electrolytes (potassium and sodium), which often results from excess sweating and dehydration, may cause muscles to cramp. Another common cause is overexertion or muscle fatigue, marked by excessive tightening of the muscles and/or a buildup of lactic acid in them. Poor conditioning may also contribute to cramps.
If you exercise strenuously during in the day, your muscles may tighten while you sleep and thus cramp. Similarly, if you’re not accustomed to them, wearing high heels may cause cramps. Also, certain medications, notably diuretics taken for hypertension, may promote cramps.
What If You Do Nothing?
Ordinary cramps, which typically occur in the leg or foot, do no permanent harm, nor are they signs of serious underlying problems. Cramps usually last just a few minutes and clear up on their own.
Home Remedies for Muscle Cramps
- Stop the cramp. For calf cramps, flex your foot by pointing your toes upward. Lying down and grabbing the toes and ball of your foot and pulling them toward your knee may help. At the same time, massage the muscle gently to relax it fully. For hamstring cramps, extend your leg straight out, gently stretching the hamstring muscles. Massage the sore area with your fingers.
- Ice the muscle. Ice packs can reduce blood flow to the muscles and thus relax them.
- Walk it off. Putting your full weight on your heels may help stop cramping in your leg.
- Drink up. Drinking water helps correct any fluid loss from excessive sweating, a common occurrence during a long athletic event in the heat. If a mineral imbalancetoo little potassium or sodium, for instanceis contributing to the cramping, an electrolyte-replacing sports drink may help. Most people, though, can get adequate sodium and potassium from their diet; supplements are not necessary.
- Have a healthy diet. Eat foods that are rich in calcium and magnesium, such as leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, fresh fruits, beans, milk, rice and oats.
- Quinine is questionable. For years quinine sulfate pills have been a staple of treating nocturnal leg cramps—but with little evidence they are effective or safe. One study did show that prescription quinine reduced the frequency of leg cramps. However, the drug can also have serious, sometimes fatal, side effects, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at one point asked the manufacturer to take it off the market. Chloride pills and vitamin E supplements also have their proponents—but again, there is no proof of their effectiveness.
- Change your sleep habits. If you seem predisposed to nocturnal leg cramps, don’t point your toes while stretching, and try not to sleep with your toes pointed. Sleep on your side, and don’t tuck in your blankets and sheets too tightly, since these can bend your toes downward. An electric blanket will keep your muscles warm and may prevent cramping.
- Get into a stretching routine. Sometimes cramps are unavoidable, but a regular program of calf-stretching exercises to lengthen the muscles that have shortened may help if you’re prone to have calf cramps. Stand about three feet from a wall and lean into it for 15 to 20 seconds, keeping your forearms against the wall and your heels on the floor. Placing the ball of your rear foot on a book and slowly lowering your heel will add to the stretch. Do these stretches daily or as often as necessary. Good stretching times are before and after exercise and before going to bed.
- Drink before and during exercise. In hot weather, drink at least 16 ounces of fluid two hours before exercising and four to eight ounces every 10 to 20 minutes while you exercise.
- Check your medicines. Recurrent cramps may be due to a medication you’re taking. Diuretics commonly prescribed to lower blood pressure are typical offenders because they deplete the potassium in your muscles. Talk to your physician about switching to another drug and/or taking potassium supplements. Also ask about the advisability of increasing your daily intake of potassium-rich foods like bananas, oranges, and potatoes.
- Don’t take salt tablets. These may be counterproductive because they cause excessive amounts of water to be drawn into the stomach, which can cause dehydration, nausea, and vomiting. If you don’t get enough sodium in your diet, add some extra salt in your cooking, sprinkle it on your food, or eat salt-rich snacks such as pretzels or crackers to help restore any imbalance in your body.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you continue to be bothered by recurrent muscle cramps despite trying self-care measures. If you experience cramping or muscle spasms in the lower back or neck, accompanied by pain that radiates down the leg or into the arm, seek medical help immediately, since these may be signs of a serious heart or abdominal condition.
What Your Doctor Will Do
In cases of recurrent cramping, your physician will first rule out more serious underlying circulatory, neurologic, and metabolic disorders. For severe cramping that causes neck and back pain, medications may be prescribed.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media