Muscle cramps can stop us cold in our tracks. Witness the fitness pro gliding into a move, only to find her leg locked in a fit of pain.
What exactly causes muscle cramps is a mystery, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and other in-the-know sources. Worse, a cramp can be so intense, you wind up injured.
“A cramp can last for a while with some people, causing prolonged pain, which can strain the muscle,” says Dr. Naresh C. Rao, D.O., a sports medicine specialist with Sports Medicine at Chelsea, in New York City, and head physician for the United States men's water polo team.
The good news is physicians and researchers know enough about cramps to offer some helpful tips for dealing with those debilitating contractions.
What we know about muscle cramps
You can get them while exercising – everything from amped-up running to simple stretching. You also can get them while just lying around. Witness your slumbering spouse jolted awake after a cramp seizes his foot.
The most prevalent theories for what causes cramps are tired muscles and electrolyte depletion related to dehydration, especially a loss of sodium and potassium.
“Cramps come from when the muscle contracts when the muscle is fatigued – overloading the muscle's ability to produce the force it is being asked to,” Rao says.
A 2010 study in the journal Sports Health concluded that the fact that a variety of treatment and prevention strategies exists is, in and of itself, “evidence of the uncertainty” of what causes cramps. Many other studies have put a damper on the dehydration and electrolyte theory.
“Cramps may have electrolyte balance or dehydration be a factor, but most likely it's related to overuse of the muscle,” Rao says.
Neural signals between your unruly muscle and your spine, tied to muscle fatigue, appear to play a role. “When a cramp begins, the spinal cord stimulates the muscle to keep contracting,” according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Hot spots for cramps are calves, thighs, foot arches, hands, arms, stomach muscles and the muscles along your rib cage.
Which brings us to …
How to prevent muscle cramps
Stretch – but do it the right way.
“Stretching is good, but overstretching is no good,” Rao says. “The only point of stretching is to keep the muscles and fascia at their optimal length.” Then when muscles contract, they will produce the optimal force, he says.
In his book “Step Up Your Game: The Revolutionary Program Elite Athletes Use to Increase Performance and Achieve Total Health,” Rao recommends the following stretching technique to increase the range of motion in your muscles in the most optimal way. None of the process should hurt.
- Bring the muscle into a full stretch.
- Contract the muscle for five seconds without moving your position (an isometric contraction). Use a low level of force to activate the muscle – less than 25 percent of your power to contract completely. You should feel the contraction, but your muscle shouldn't tremble.
- Relax the muscle for three seconds.
- Repeat this process three times.
- Stretch the muscle again – but this time without contraction – to its maximal point of stretch and hold for 10 seconds (a passive stretch).
And finally …
What to do when your muscle cramps
Drink pickle juice. Weird, but athletes have been downing the stuff since the 1950s to treat – and prevent – cramps (apparently the salt content doesn't matter much, by the way). Studies, including one in 2010, have shown it helps – even within 35 seconds of getting a cramp. Mustard and sour candy have been found to do the trick too.
That said, stretching the cramped muscle is more common and widely considered to be effective. Hurts a little while you're at it, but eventually should help.
Learn more about journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at www.mitramalek.com.