Relieving Muscle Cramps
What are Muscle Cramps?
Muscles play an important role in our bodies as they support our limbs and give us power to move them. We have muscles in our internal organs called smooth muscles which help with movements in the stomach, intestines and arteries. We have cardiac muscles to help the heart to beat and skeletal muscles which move the limbs and external parts which we control.
Muscles are made up of stretchy fibre and when we get cramp in the skeletal muscles, they contract without any control. It could be the whole muscle or a small part of it, but it will harden and cause a spasm.
Muscle cramps are uncomfortable and often quite painful, but they do not always last very long. The cramp may ease after a few minutes but occasionally it could last longer.
Although there could be many reasons for the cause, the majority of adults will experience this sensation at some point in their lives. Children can also get cramp in their muscles as can pregnant women.
We can have internal cramps which can cause pain, such as menstrual cramps or labour contractions. But skeletal cramps are common especially in areas such as the calf muscles, legs and feet.
There are many different types of cramp and each is dependent on muscle area and cause of cramp. Some causes however are unknown but there are theories on why these may occur.
- True Cramp
True cramps are particularly common and can be relieved as they are not harmful to the muscle. They tend to be caused by excessive exercise as the nerves are over stimulated or 'muscle fatigue'. If the muscle has been overworked after a while it will resist and can cause pain.
Other causes of true cramp include temporary dehydration, or a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
- Rest Cramp / Night Cramp
This can happen when resting or while in bed at night. It can be caused by lack of circulation, lack of sodium or calcium or movement which shortens the muscle in the calf and causes it to spasm.
Unlike Restless Leg Syndrome, which is a disorder that causes involuntary twitching and moving of the leg when resting, night cramps are when the muscle itself contracts. However sufferers of RLS can suffer from cramp, especially when pointing the toes which in turn shortens the calf muscle.
- Tetany Cramp
This is a form of cramp caused by the over stimulation of all nerve cells and in turn causes the muscle to also spasm.
The main cause of tetany is due to lack of calcium or magnesium in the diet. Although the under function of the parathyroid gland (found in the neck) can also be a cause.
This is a constant contraction causing the muscle to tighten and become shorter. The lack of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is a chemical in the cells which prevents the muscle to relax can cause this to happen.
Certain conditions can cause this symptom, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
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Relieving the Symptoms of Cramp
Gentle warm up exercises can relieve the symptoms of cramp or minimise them from happening. It is always important to warm up muscles before sport so they do not pull. Equally, warm down at the end of the exercise too.
Simple stretching exercises can make a big difference. Stretch the ham string, the calf muscles and your quads. Do this for 10 minutes or so before and after activity. For foot cramps, stretch out the foot and toes and rub them until the tightening stops.
Yoga can also help with muscle cramps, as it gently stretches and relaxes the muscles.
Simple walks out and being active will avoid stiffness and loosen you up.
In the same way as warming up before exercise, it is important to keep warm to relieve the painful contractions.
Being in a warm environment, having hot drinks, moving around and using blankets and hot bean bags can all help. Over the counter sprays, patches and gels for muscle pain can also help. They are warming and ease things up.
If you are out and about suffering from cramps, wear plenty of layers if it is cold. Wear gloves if you get cramps in your hands when cycling or playing sport and wear thick socks if you get cramp in your feet.
Have a hot bath when you get home for a stress free remedy.
Massage is good for warming up the area, loosening knots and relaxing the tightened muscle. Rub the area which is painful to try and make a difference. Professional massage therapists will know the right way to massage and can do this for you. Use oils, balms and creams when massaging.
If there is a lack of vitamins or minerals in your diet then you may be prone to cramp. You can make a food diary for a couple of weeks to see what kinds of food you eat. If your diet is lacking in nutrition then your doctor can do a blood test.
Certain foods are high in minerals and vitamins and are worth including regularly in your meals.
Include rice, wheat, Brazil nuts, leafy greens, seeds, broccoli and soya milk.
Include milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, dark leafy greens and whole grains.
Fortified cereals, nuts, bananas, beef, avocados, potatoes, oats, turkey and eggs.
Bananas, leafy greens, salmon, avocados, mushrooms, baked potato and dried apricots.
Some cramp can be down to lack of sodium or because of dehydration.
Avoid diuretics and keep hydrated with water and fruit teas. Quinine (found in tonic water) is thought to help with the relief of cramp, but quinine tablets have negative side effects.
Sodium is found in salt, so needs to be consumed in moderation. However low sodium, especially from sweat during exercise can have an impact on cramps. It is important to speak to a health professional if this is the case.
Sometimes medication can treat painful cramps. There are different medications (usually for other conditions) which may be used for the treatment of cramps. For example furosemide for water retention or turbutaline which is used for asthma.
If there is a medical reason why you are getting cramp then this needs to be addressed by your doctor. Poor circulation, varicose veins, kidney or thyroid problems which are related to regular cramps need the appropriate treatment.
Wear Correct Footwear
High heels or uncushioned soles can put pressure on the lower leg and foot. High heels stretch the leg which can be painful, so wearing them for limited periods or changing into comfortable footwear when walking around can help.
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