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Muscle Cramp

Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 1, 2023.

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 the legs or feet. They are also common along the ribs and in the 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 or her if they occur at rest or during exercise. Tell him or her if they occur during the day or at night. Your provider will examine you and press on the muscles where you have cramps. Blood test may be used to check for dehydration or organ function problems.

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 decrease swelling and pain. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the bag with a towel before you place it on your sore muscles. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or as directed.
  • Apply heat to decrease pain and muscle spasms. Apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed.

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 and cool down when you exercise. Run in place slowly or walk at a brisk pace to warm your muscles before you exercise. When you finish exercising, walk for a few minutes to cool down.
    Warm up and Cool Down
  • 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.
    Healthy Foods

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

When should I seek immediate care?

  • 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.

When should I call my doctor?

  • 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.

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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