Muscle cramps (or muscle spasms) are painful contractions and tightening of the muscles. These conditions are common, involuntary, and mostly unpredictable.
The exact cause remains unknown, but the common risk factors may include poor physical condition, overexertion, and muscle fatigue.
What are Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps (or charley horse) are involuntary contractions and tightening of the muscles that bring severe pain. The cramping may be more intense and lasts longer than a typical nighttime spasm. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes in the body often contribute to this condition.
Cramps may affect any muscle under voluntary control that involves several muscle groups. It mainly influences the back of the lower leg or calf, front and back thigh. Cramping can also occur in the feet, arms, hands, abdomen, and along the rib cage.
Muscle cramps and spasms are usually harmless but can be a symptom of an underlying health condition like atherosclerosis or narrowing of the arteries. Cramps that last longer than a few minutes are considered severe and should be seen by a medical professional.
Although the exact cause is unknown, some researchers believe that muscle fatigue, lack of stretching, and other factors lead to muscle control abnormalities.
Physical exertion and muscle fatigue can lead to heat cramps. Other factors that put people at greater risk for cramping include:
- Being overweight or obesity
- Inadequate diet
- Tight, inflexible condition
- Existing muscle injury
- Cold muscles
- Low levels of electrolytes (magnesium, potassium, or calcium)
- Certain medications
People at any age can get cramps, but it is most common among infants, young children, and people over 65. According to Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA), it is also a widespread condition among athletes, such as runners, triathletes, and those who perform strenuous activities.
Treatment and Prevention
These actions may ease pain and provide relief for cramps and spasms.
Stretch and Massage
Stretch and gently rub the affected muscle to help it relax. Then, try pulling the top of the foot towards the head while the other leg remains straight. It allows the back thigh or hamstring muscle to relieve physical pain from cramps.
For persistent cramps and spasms, do a hard pinch on the affected area and hold it for a few minutes.
Apply Heat or Cold
Hot or cold therapy can be highly effective for treating pain and spasms.
Apply an ice pack on the affected muscle between 15 to 20 minutes several times a day for cold therapy. Make sure to wrap a towel or cloth to avoid putting it directly on the skin.
For hot therapy, use a warm towel or heating pads and put in around the tense or tight muscles. The heat can be good for the pain.
Other treatment options include a warm bath, hot shower, or spa.
Taking over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve muscle cramps and spasms by reducing pain and inflammation. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
The doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant or pain medications for severe and persistent cramps and spasms.
Muscle relaxants are often prescribed for 2-to-3-week periods to prevent contractions, twitching, and cramping that is out of control. Another side effect of this medication is drowsiness, which can help the person get enough rest at night.
When To See a Doctor
Although muscle cramps and spasms are benign, severe ones can indicate an underlying medical condition.
Seek professional help from a doctor if the cramps become too painful and happen frequently. Also, get help if the cramping does not respond to treatment or is unrelated to heat and other risk factors. It may indicate problems in the circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, or even nutrition.
If left untreated, these cramps can develop from minor to severe and cause spinal nerve irritation, hardening of the arteries, thyroid disease, chronic infections, and liver cirrhosis.
The good news is that muscle cramps typically do not cause long-lasting damage, and the person can go on to make a quick, full recovery. However, it is best to avoid doing physical exercises and applying treatment to prevent complications and developing symptoms.
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