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Muscle Cramps (Muscle Spasms) – Causes And Treatment

Muscle cramps

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Treating Muscle Cramps and Spasms: Muscle cramps (or muscle spasms) are painful contractions and involuntary tightening of the muscles. It’s a relatively common condition that can strike at the most unexpected times.

The exact cause of muscle cramps is not well understood, but there are some common risk factors – such as being in poor physical condition, overexertion, and muscle fatigue.

What Are Muscle Cramps?

Muscle cramps (also known as getting a “charley horse”) are involuntary contractions and tightening of the muscles that can cause significant pain. The cramping may be more intense and lasts longer than a typical night-time spasm. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes in the body often contribute to this condition.

Cramps can affect any muscle you control that’s connected to multiple muscle groups. It most commonly affects the back of the lower leg or calf, and the front or 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 a more serious 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 not understood, some researchers believe that muscle fatigue, lack of stretching, and other factors lead to muscle control abnormalities such as cramping.

Risk Factors

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
  • Poor diet
  • Tight muscles, inflexible condition
  • Existing muscle injuries
  • Cold muscles
  • Dehydration
  • 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 your toes back towards your head while the other leg remains straight. It works the back thigh or hamstring muscle, which can sometimes release muscle a little, and help relieve physical pain from cramps.

For persistent cramps and spasms, do a hard pinch on the affected area – just 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.

Non-Prescription Remedies

Taking over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve muscle cramps and spasms by reducing pain and inflammation. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Neurofen, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Prescription Medications

The doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant or pain medications for severe and persistent cramps and spasms.

Muscle relaxants are often prescribed for a 2-to-3 week period to prevent uncontrolled contractions, twitching, and cramping. Another side effect of this medication is drowsiness, which can potentially be beneficial – helping the person to sleep through the night.

When To See A Doctor

Although muscle cramps and spasms are generally harmless, 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  – it may indicate problems in the circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, or even your underlying nutrition.

If left untreated, these cramps can develop from a minor condition to a severe one, 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 will generally 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.

Know what to do in case of muscle cramps and spasms in a first aid course.

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