Cramps can be very troublesome if they persist. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent them. Here is a list of 10 questions about cramps and how to prevent them:
A cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle or a muscle group. The misleading name in Finnish (suonenveto, pulled blood vessel) comes from the 17th century, when diseases were named after their appearance. The appearance of a muscle cramp may resemble a blood vessel.
The definite root cause of cramps is not known. The condition may be related to circulatory problems, disorders of the nervous system or issues with the body’s sodium homeostasis. A cramp occurs when a muscle remains in a state of contraction for excessive an period of time. Oxygen is not provided to the contracted muscle and it cannot remove the waste products it creates, which causes pain.
People over 50 are very susceptible to cramps. Approximately 30–50% of people over 60 suffer from cramps. Another typical group of people under 50 who are very likely to suffer cramps are pregnant women. Nearly all pregnant women experience cramps at some point. Susceptibility to cramps is explained by swelling and metabolic changes, such as magnesium deficiency. At a certain phase of pregnancy, the pregnant woman’s blood will become “diluted”, and muscles are provided with less sodium, potassium and calcium, which help prevent cramps, than normally.
Cramps occur most commonly in the legs. In some rarer cases, they can also occur in the arms or the body. Endurance athletes are prone to experience cramps in the calves or the soles of feet. Running very fast may also cause cramps in the posterior thigh. A cramp may last from a few seconds to several minutes.
Your muscles are relaxed when you sleep. In this state, even a minor stimulation, such as a sudden movement or even a slight contact with the blanket may cause a cramp in the muscle. People are also susceptible to cramps if they have not slept well and after a long-term stress on the muscles, i.e. when they are tired.
Cold temperature and draught can increase the risk of cramps. Warm temperature is known to improve blood circulation, so it may help with cramps as well. However, the risk of cramps is also high in the warm summer months and in the sauna if you sweat a lot and do not drink enough liquids high in sodium.
You should stretch your muscles and drink sufficiently before swimming or driving a car. The most important thing is to remain calm even if you are in pain.
If you are swimming, you should quickly look for some solid ground to stand on in order to stretch the contracted muscle. If the cramp is located in the sole of the foot, for example, you should stretch your toes upwards. A stretch of one millimetre can already relax the muscle. The contracted muscle should also be massaged lightly in order to improve the recovery of blood circulation and metabolism in the area.
If you are driving a car and the foot on the accelerator pedal begins cramping, you should activate the cruise control system. If your car is not equipped with one, you should pull over.
The best mode of first aid is to stretch the cramping area. Some may experience milder cramps if they suck on a grain of sea salt or drink one decilitre of water with one teaspoon of salt. Table salt and sea salt, both with a high sodium content, are important for the functionality of the muscles. Mineral salts contain significantly less sodium than other conventional forms of salt, but, on the other hand, they are also high in potassium and magnesium, which also support the functionality of muscles.
It is good to keep in mind that excessive use of salt can elevate your blood pressure. The use of sodium and potassium supplements should not be initiatedwithout a diagnosed mineral deficiency and a doctor’s orders.
In some cases, a cramp may cause the muscle to be hypersensitive for several hours or even until the following day. The best mode of aftercare is to apply a topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream and to exercise lightly. Strenuous physical activities should be avoided, but there is no need to remain completely at rest.
Sufficient sleep every night is recommended. You can soak your feet in warm water in the evening or wear woolly socks or gaiters in bed. In the morning, you can perform a light foot exercise by rotating your ankles or stand on tiptoes.
Stretching, maintaining a proper fluid balance and wearing appropriate footwear can prevent muscle cramps. Magnesium supplementation is also a valid option. If your legs swell often, it is recommended to lift them up occasionally for 5–10 minutes at a time. If the symptoms are severe, compression stockings can be worn.
If you experience cramps frequently and smoke, you should stop smoking and avoid excessive use of alcohol. Drinking less coffee and tea can also be helpful.
You should visit a doctor if you feel that the modes of treatment performed at home do not provide sufficient help. The doctor will study the skin and blood circulation of the cramping area and the condition of the muscles in the area and examine you for any varicose veins that may increase the risk of cramps. A blood test can be performed in order to study your sodium homeostasis and rule out the possibility of diseases such as diabetes and thyroid disorders.
Some medications for arthritis and diuretics can increase the risk of cramps. The doctor may suggest an alternative product or change the current dosage. If everything else fails, the doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant or a medication that improves peripheral blood circulation for your cramps.
Expert: Specialist in Sports Medicine and Physiatry Hanna Junttila, Mehiläinen Oulu.