Muscle Cramps And How To Treat Them

We all know the the feeling of a painful cramp – whether its woken you up in the middle of the night or cut your run short. A cramp is essentially an involuntary contraction of our skeletal muscle, and it bloody hurts! 

Some people often experience cramps after vigorous, high-intensity exercise, but there are also many who experience them with no exercise at, and these can occur mostly at night. 

Interestingly, these cramps are usually restricted to the lower limbs. This is generally the same as athletes experiencing exercise associated muscle cramps. So, are the causes the same?

What actually causes cramps?

There is concrete culprit when it comes to the reason for cramps, but there are many theories. 

We know cramps are rarely seen at the start of a sporting contest, but regularly seen at the end. So fatigue definitely seems to play a role here. Some have long suggested dehydration and electrolyte imbalance (such as decreased salt content) as a cause.

As the evidence is mostly observational it means that there may be an association between dehydration, salt depletion and cramps, we can’t exactly prove one caused the other.

Rocky reflexes

All muscles have an inbuilt reflex mechanism. This means when the muscle is tensed, or contracts, a reflexive message is sent to the spinal cord for the muscle to lengthen and relax. This is how the muscle protects itself from injury. 

Usually when the muscle is tired, the protective reflex action can be disrupted. Meaning the muscle contracts for longer than you want it to.

But the reason for neuromuscular fatigue, and why this inhibits the reflex, is not well understood. Cramps are usually more common at the start of a sporting season, when muscles are less conditioned. This is most likely due to higher levels of fatigue occurring in less trained muscles.

Are certain people more susceptible?

Some people seem to experience cramps more often than others, which may be related to the sensitivity of their muscle reflexes.

Cramps are generally more prevalent in males, which may be because females demonstrate less fatigue when exercising at similar relative intensities.

Nocturnal cramps are more commonly reported in older age. There is also a particularly high prevalence of cramps in pregnancy, generally beginning in the second trimester and often worsening in the third.

So, how do we treat them?

The best way to get rid of a cramp is by stretching the muscle, since the reflex to do this is likely being inhibited. However, stretching a severely cramping muscle might cause a degree of damage to the muscle.

So, contracting the opposite muscle in the muscle pair (usually on the other side) may be a better approach. This involves, for example, contracting the quadriceps (at the front of the leg) when the hamstrings (at the back of the leg) are cramping. 

Salt tablets and magnesium have been commonly used for cramps as well as well as increasing your fluid intake.  

Massage (due to reduced nerve sensitivity) and stretching may also help decrease the incidence of cramps, so we recommend booking a visit to a trusted Physiotherapist or Myotherapist.