A muscle cramp occurs when your muscle tightens and therefore shortens, causing sudden and severe pain. A common site for people to get cramps is in their calf muscles, however, you can just about get cramps in any muscle of the body.
Although there are several theories about what causes cramps, they generally result from overexertion and dehydration. Low blood sugar levels and extreme cold and heat can also cause cramping.
When you are dehydrated, there can be an electrolyte imbalance in the muscle cells that causes your muscles to spasm. Electrolytes help the body's cells to function properly. The main electrolytes affecting muscle cramping are potassium, sodium and calcium. An imbalance occurs when we have too much or too little of one or more electrolytes in our system, often caused by fluid imbalances.
Cramps may also occur after inactivity, such as sitting too long in one place without moving a muscle, or even when you're just lying in bed. These cramps are not related to activity, but can be treated the same way.
Cramps can be eased by a few simple methods. First, relax the tightened area. You should gently massage the area that's cramped. Second, stretch the muscle out slowly and gently. You can find some descriptions of helpful stretches here.
You should also drink plenty of fluids. If you get muscle cramps after exercise, drink water or a sports drink or juice to rehydrate and restore your electrolyte balance. Usually water will be adequate for rehydration, however, a better alternative is a sports drink containing electrolytes. If you commonly get cramps, you should make sure you are always well hydrated prior to exercise.
You may also treat a cramp with ice. Ice is both a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory (reduces swelling). Try massaging the area with ice for up to ten minutes. Make sure to massage the muscle with your hands following icing.
- Article on cramping: Don't Let A Cramp Cut Your Run Short!
- What is a stitch?
- A collection of Stretches
- Hydration for athletes