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Muscle Cramp

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2022.

What is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is a sudden, sharp pain or spasm in a muscle. It lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes. Muscle cramps most often occur in your legs or feet. They are also common along your ribs and in your arms and hands.

What increases my risk for a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp may be caused by tired muscles or failure to stretch properly. The following may increase your risk:

  • Exercise, especially in hot or humid weather, or that is new, intense, or lasts a long time
  • Pregnancy
  • Dehydration
  • Medicines, such as cholesterol or diuretic medicine
  • Age older than 65 years
  • Health conditions, such as kidney or liver failure, or thyroid disease

What are the signs and symptoms of a muscle cramp?

  • Sudden, sharp muscle pain or squeezing
  • Visible twitching or muscle movement
  • Hard muscles, or knots in your muscles

How is the cause of a muscle cramp diagnosed?

Tell your healthcare provider how often you have muscle cramps and how long they usually last. Tell him if they occur at rest or during exercise. Tell him if they occur during the day or at night. Your healthcare provider will examine you and press on the muscles where you have cramps. You may also need a blood test to check for dehydration and organ function.

How can I manage a muscle cramp?

Muscle cramps often go away without any treatment. You can do the following to help relieve a cramp:

  • Stop the activity that caused the muscle cramp.
  • Stretch or massage your muscle until the cramp goes away.
  • Apply ice to sore muscles. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel, and place it on your sore muscles for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. Ice decreases swelling and pain.
  • Apply heat to tense, tight muscles for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms.

How can I help prevent a muscle cramp?

  • Stretch your muscles. Stretch 3 times daily, including before bedtime and before exercise. Stretch briefly, and then release each stretch. Do not stretch so far that you feel pain. Daily stretches will relax your muscles and increase flexibility. Ask your healthcare provider for instructions on muscle stretches that are right for you.
  • Warm up before you exercise. Run in place slowly or walk at a brisk pace to warm your muscles.
  • Drink liquids as directed. Liquids can help prevent muscle cramps caused by dehydration. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. You may need to drink liquids that replace lost electrolytes, such as sports drinks.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods may help prevent muscle cramps. Healthy foods include bananas, beans, avocados, or other foods high in electrolytes. Ask if you should eat more carbohydrates.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your cramp does not go away, even after you stretch and apply ice or heat.
  • You have muscle cramps often.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You cannot urinate, or your urine is dark yellow or brown within 24 hours of the cramp.
  • You have pain in your neck or back.
  • Your arm or leg is weak or numb, or the area around your cramp is numb.
  • You have trouble moving your cramped muscle.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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