If you have ever experienced a muscle spasm or muscle cramp, you know that it can be extremely painful. So what exactly causes muscle cramps? A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. This causes a noticeable hardening of the involved muscle which usually results in pain. The cramp can usually last a few seconds, minutes, or even longer and may enable you to use that muscle during that period of time. A serious muscle spasm occurs when the muscle does not release on its own and requires stretching and massaging.
The most common places for muscle cramps are:
- Back of lower leg (calf)
- Back of thigh (hamstrings)
- Front of thigh (quadriceps)
- Feet, hands, arms, and abdomen
Causes of Muscle Cramps
It is still unknown the exact causes for muscle cramps but some theories include:
- Electrolyte reduction
- Nutritional imbalances
- Low levels of calcium which can be a result of kidney disease, high protein and phosphate levels
- Randomly selecting to supplement one’s self with the wrong vitamins and minerals
- Muscle fatigue
- Doing a new activity involving certain muscles
Muscle cramps have also been strongly linked with exercising in the heat. It is more common for muscles to cramp in the heat because sweat contains electrolytes as well as salt, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. When the levels of these nutrients decrease, the likeliness of having a muscle cramp or spasm increases.
In order to prevent muscle cramps and spasms, it is important to improve your overall health and fitness. Having good cardiovascular fitness is key in preventing muscle cramps because it will improve blood delivery to your muscles. In order for your muscles to function properly, you need adequate amounts of nutrients and oxygen. It is also very important to stay hydrated while working out. Muscle cramps can be a warning sign of dehydration or hyponatremia which is when your body has too little salt/electrolytes.
If your workout is about an hour long, taking a few sips of water throughout your workout will be just fine. If you are going to have a longer, more rigorous workout, you should be drinking a sports drink that has been watered down because if you are working out hard, you will need more than just water to maintain a good balance of electrolytes in your body.
Maintaining a consistent workout routine will also contribute in having less muscle cramps. Pushing yourself above your resistance level and trying new things is what leads to muscle cramps. We are not telling you not to push yourself but be cautious of your limits.
Increasing your potassium intake will also contribute to less muscle cramps. It is preferable that you chose foods with high potassium levels instead of supplements unless suggested by a doctor. Foods that are high in potassium include bananas, cantaloupe and legumes.
Preventing Muscle Cramps
Overall, if you want to prevent muscle cramps, it is important to follow these simple rules:
1. Avoid working out until you are exhausted.
2. Stretch AFTER your workout.
3. Stay hydrated.
4. Include a warm-up exercise and a cool-down.
If a muscle cramp occurs, follow these steps:
1. Drink water.
2. Stretch and massage the muscle.
3. Apply heat to the muscle. This can include a heating pad, warm towel, or warm bath.
If muscle cramps are a recurring problem, it is important to see a doctor.