Has a muscle cramp ever woken you up in the middle of the night? Or stopped you in your tracks in the middle of an activity? If you’re like most people, chances are your answer is “yes.” Muscle cramps, or “charley horses” as they are sometimes called, are extremely common and occur when muscles involuntarily contract and cannot relax. While it is not known exactly why muscle cramps develop, there are some proven methods for preventing and treating them.
“Cramps can affect any muscle under your control,” explains Carolyn Quist, DO, an osteopathic physician from Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Quist adds that “cramps can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group.” The most notorious sites for cramps are the calves, thighs and arch of the foot. Cramps in the hands, arms, abdomen and along the rib cage are also very common.
“When a person experiences a muscle cramp, the muscle that is cramping feels harder than normal to the touch or may even show visible signs of twitching,” Dr. Quist says. The intensity of muscle cramps range from feeling like mild twitches to excruciating pain.
Causes of Muscle Cramps
Unfortunately, cramps can occur anywhere, anytime to anyone. “No one is immune,” explains Dr. Quist. “You could be young or old, very active or normally very sedentary, and you could develop a muscle cramp doing just about anything.” However, Dr. Quist adds that infants, the elderly, the overweight, and athletes are at the greatest risk for muscle cramps.
Some common causes of muscle cramps, according to Dr. Quist, are insufficient stretching before exercise, exercising in the heat, and muscle fatigue. Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps. “Imbalances in the levels of electrolytes in the blood, such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and phosphate, can also lead to muscle cramps,” she adds.
Treating Muscle Cramps
The good news is that muscle cramps usually go away within minutes and typically do not warrant medical attention. “You can usually treat muscle cramps with self-care measures,” says Dr. Quist. Here are a few of the methods:
Stop doing whatever activity triggered the cramp.
Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, holding it in stretched position until the cramp stops.
For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you're unable to stand, try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg is in a straightened position. This will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp.
For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side toward your buttock.
Apply heat to tense/tight muscles, or cold to sore/tender muscles.
Dr. Quist warns that if cramps are severe, happen frequently, respond poorly to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes like strenuous exercise, you should see your doctor. “They could be a symptom of problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications, or nutrition,” she says.
To prevent muscle cramps, Dr. Quist advises to work toward better overall fitness. “It is important to do regular flexibility exercises before and after you work out to stretch muscle groups most prone to cramping.” She adds that it’s also a good idea to avoid dehydration. “Your aim should be to drink plenty of liquids, generally at least six glasses of water or other beverages daily.” The exact amount depends on what you eat, your gender, your level of activity, the weather, your health, your age and any medications you may be taking. “Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable,” Dr. Quist explains. When you’re exercising, it’s best to drink fluids before, during, and after the activity.
Though a muscle cramp is common, it is still a real pain. If you think your muscle cramps are too frequent and severe to be normal, it is best to see your doctor for an evaluation.