Our muscles are the body’s gateway to movement. They are the only tissues in our body that can contract and move the other parts of our body, so we rely on them heavily.
It is skeletal muscles that allow for physical motion. These striated muscles are attached to bone in at least one place, and many reach across a joint and connect to bones at each end. They are the key to all of our conscious movements.
Given our reliance on muscles for movement, when a muscle cramps, we’re dismayed, because, for a brief period, they don’t function. A cramp is a tightening or painful, strong contraction of a muscle that happens suddenly and involuntarily and lasts for a few seconds to a few minutes. It prevents the muscle from functioning properly.
Most people experience muscle cramps in legs, calfs, and feet. They may manifest themselves as a lump of hard tissue visible under the skin’s surface. Some people are prone to muscle cramps at night – the tightening of muscles in the calf, thigh or foot that often occur as they are awakening or falling asleep.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
While all of the causes of muscle cramps aren’t known, they are sometimes related to an underlying medical condition, such as nerve compression, mineral depletion and inadequate blood supply. Generally, people are more susceptible to muscle cramps as we age, because they lose muscle mass and the remaining fibres are overstressed more easily.
- Muscle cramps can happen if a muscle is injured or overused or they can occur during exercise.
- Mineral depletion, often due to the use of diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure medication, can lead to cramps, as can a dearth of calcium, potassium and magnesium in your diet.
- Muscle cramps in pregnancy are common due to the need for additional minerals in the diet during pregnancy.
- If you are dehydrated or exposed to cold temperatures, especially cold water, your muscles may contract.
- Standing on a hard surface or sitting in one place for an extended period of time can cause cramps, as can sleeping with your legs in an awkward position.
- In addition, if you are taking certain medications, such as birth control pills, or steroids, you may be more prone to muscle cramps.
Home Remedies for Muscle Cramps
For most people, you can address the cramps yourself using a variety home remedies for muscle cramps:
- If you find one of your muscles cramping, first try massaging it and stretching it.
- Heat may alleviate some of the discomfort, so take a warm bath or shower or apply a heating pad to the affected area.
- If you’d prefer to try ice, use an ice pack on your muscle, but don’t place it directly on the skin; use a dishtowel as a barrier.
- Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication may also help ease the pain, and these are readily available over the counter.
- Finally, ensure that you aren’t dehydrated; drink fluids. Sports drinks can be helpful in easing leg cramps.
- If your cramp is a leg cramp, try jiggling your leg or walking around. You should also stretch your calf muscles, either while standing or sitting.
Generally, your cramps will ease as a result of one or more of these home remedies. However, consider seeing your physician if the cramps don’t improve with self-care; occur frequently; prompt redness, swelling or changes to your skin; cause severe pain; or don’t seem to bear any relation to exercise, overuse or any particular cause.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
If you want to prevent muscle cramps, staying hydrated is your first line of defence. Drinking fluids allows your muscles to contract and relax. Maintain a healthy diet, rich in magnesium, potassium and calcium.
Stretching both before and after exercising is also a good preventive measure. You may want to consult a physiotherapist about the best prevention exercises to use.