Exercise Related Muscle Cramps
If you’ve ever experienced the excruciating pain of a severe muscle cramp, you may fearfully wonder if it will strike again. You may also wonder if nutrition imbalances are at the root of the problem and if diet changes would be the simple solution. This article will try to answer some of the most common questions about the exercise related muscle cramps.
What is exercise related muscle cramp?
Exercise related muscle cramp is a sudden, spasmodic, sharp, painful, and involuntary shortening (contraction) of the skeletal muscle that occurs during or immediately after exercise.
When a muscle get tired, the numerous muscle fibers that comprise the muscle fail to contract in a synchronized rhythm. This is likely related to overstimulation from the nerves that trigger the muscles to contract. The cramped area may feel like a hard knot.
Note that this definition applies to exercise related cramps only, and therefore it excludes a whole host of other categories of cramps that are not the subject of this article.
Is there any other other types of muscle cramps?
Yes, there is. Other cramping that occurs outside of exercise may be symptomatic of a hormonal, neurological, or vascular disorder or may be caused by certain drugs or occupational factors. Then there are cramps that are what the experts call idiopathic, which technically means they have no cause (but in reality means doctors don’t know what causes them). If you regularly experience cramps, either during exercise or when at rest, it’s probably worth seeing a doctor to determine whether any of these broad factors might be responsible.
What are the possible causes of exercise associated muscle cramps?
As for exercise associated muscle cramps, the cause remains poorly understood and highly controversial. Scientific research has not identified a precise reason for muscle cramps. Also, no one has been able to predictably cause a muscle to cramp; this hindered the ability to study the underlying mechanisms that contribute to these unpredictable spasms.
It appears that muscle cramps can be a consequence of:
- Excessive muscle tension;
- Prolonged low-intensity exercise;
- Muscle fatigue – working your muscles to the point of exhaustion;
- Inadequate blood supply: narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs;
- Nerve compression;
- Dehydration (water loss);
- Electrolyte loss/imbalance (lack of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and especially sodium);
- Environmental conditions (heat);
- Glycogen depletion and salt deficiency;
- Inadequate stretching and conditioning;
Despite a widespread belief that exercise related muscle cramps in all athletes are caused by dehydration and electrolyte loss, there is no body of scientific literature that supports this theory. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) position paper notes that recommendations to avoid dehydration and sodium deficits to prevent muscle cramps is based on consensus and usual practice not experimental evidence.
What is the best non-medical treatment for muscle cramps?
What should you do if you get a cramp?
- To treat muscle cramps, apply ice for 10 to 15 minutes to relax the muscle and reduce the pain.
- Gentle stretching can also be effective.
- Add sodium to fluid (add 1/8 to 1/4 tsp table salt to 300-500 mL water or sport drink).
- Massage the affected muscle.
- Try relaxing the affected muscle by applying pressure to it (accupressure). This is a specific type of massage that relies primarily on using the thumbs, fingers and palms to apply pressure on specific points.
- Try giving yourself a hard pinch squarely on the upper lip.
Prevention of exercise related muscle cramps?
We have to keep in mind that the below suggestions are only suggestions, not proven solutions. But you might want to experiment with these tips if you repeatedly suffer from muscle cramps. These suggestions certainly won’t harm you and may possibly resolve the worrisome problem.
- Drink more than enough fluids before, during and after you exercise. Your urine should be light colored and copious.
- Prevent muscular cramp by good basic training and warm-up exercises, and by using the correct equipment.
- Muscle cramps can be prevented through the maintenance of fluid and salt balance. Athletes who have a history of exercise related muscle cramps may need extra sodium when exercising in the heat.
- Following all or at least some of the nutritional solutions for muscle cramps may also be helpful.
Can muscle cramp damage the muscle?
Unfortunately they can. Severe muscle cramps can cause damage to your muscle tissue by causing your muscle fibers to tear under the strength of their own contractions.
Which muscles are most often affected by cramps?
Any muscle can cramp, but the muscles of the calf, back of the thigh (hamstring muscles), and front of the thigh (quadriceps) are most often affected. Cramps are also common in the feet, hands, arms, and belly (abdomen), and along the rib cage.
However, about 80% of the affected muscle area is the calf.
Is it worth buying a supplement to treat exercise associated muscle cramps?
The answer would be no, as always. A trip to a local pharmacy or sports shop to glance at the seemingly infinite number of supplements, gels, drinks, creams, and other products that are designed to prevent cramps will help you realize that just as the dehydration theory of overheating and exercise fatigue spawned an industry, so too have muscle cramps driven an industry of their own, aided and abetted by scientific research with sometimes questionable motives.
The precise causes of muscle cramp are not clear. Causes could be both nutritional and non-nutritional. They most often occur when the muscle is hit, overstretched or used with too much force, especially when exercising in the heat. However, any factors that impair the circulation should also be considered seriously. These include close-fitting socks, shoes laced too tightly, an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles, varicose veins, cold weather, and infections. Then we also have nutritional causes like lack of water, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Therefore each athlete should determine the likely causes of their cramping and, through trial and error, institute strategies that are known to prevent the causative factors.