Muscle Cramps: Is There Anything To Worry About?
Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on March 5, 2021.
Hands Up If You Suffer From Charley Horse
"Charley Horse" is the colloquial term used for muscle cramps. You know...those excruciating spasms that stop you in your tracks or force you to leap out of bed, Superman style!
But when is a muscle cramp more than just a muscle cramp? What symptoms should you worry about? When should you get checked by a doctor? We've put together some information to make you a bit wiser about your cramps and to help you get back on your horse quickly...so to speak!
The Hard Working Life Of A Muscle
We have more than 600 muscles in our body. Muscles pump our blood around our body, help us digest food, focus our eyes, and allow us to walk, talk, kick a ball and generally exist as a human.
The muscles under our conscious control are our skeletal muscles. Muscles that are out of our conscious control are our smooth and cardiac muscles, such as those in our digestive tract and heart.
Any Muscle Can Cramp
Technically, muscle cramps can occur in any muscle, in any part of the body. Conditions such as diarrhea can cause stomach cramps, period pain is caused by cramps in the uterus, asthma is caused by a spasming or cramping of our breathing tubes.
But our focus for this slideshow is on cramps that occur in the muscles of our musculoskeletal system. The ones that move our joints and work with our bones to give us power and strength. The ones responsible for those leg cramps in the middle of the night, in the swimming pool, or on the soccer field. The ones supposedly under our voluntary control.
When A Muscle Normally Under Our Control Behaves Badly
So if these muscles are under our control....why do they cramp?
Well, our muscles are actually quite sensitive. Normal muscle contraction happens when electrical signals from our brain travel down nerves in our spinal cord to a muscle. At the muscle, the nerve signal causes the release of calcium and other substances that cause proteins within the muscle to slide past one another, resulting in contraction. Anything that disrupts either the electrical signaling process or the release of calcium or other chemicals can cause muscle cramps.
Certain Conditions Make Muscles More Vulnerable to Cramps
Salt balances within our body are easily disrupted with heavy sweating, dehydration, in seniors and athletes, and during pregnancy.
Muscles that are overused, strained, held in a set position for too long, or have an inadequate blood supply are also more vulnerable. Sometimes the reason for muscle cramping is not known.
When Should I Be Worried?
Most muscle cramps disappear within 10 minutes by themselves and rarely require a visit to the doctor. However, it's important to get a medical check up if your cramps:
- Cause severe pain or discomfort
- Are associated with swelling, redness, or skin changes
- Cause muscle weakness or make it difficult to put weight on a limb
- Happen regularly
- Don't respond to self-help measures
- Don't seem to be linked to an obvious cause, such as dehydration or exercise.
Self-Help Measures to Lessen the Pain
Stretching and rubbing the affected muscle can help it to relax.
For muscle cramps involving the calf or hamstring (back of the thigh), put weight on the affected leg and pull the toes up. If you're unable to stand, sit down with your legs extended. For cramps involving the front of the thigh (quadriceps), try using a chair to steady yourself and pull your foot up towards your buttock.
Heat can also soothe tight and tense muscles. Alternatively, some people prefer ice.
Regular calf stretching (3 times a day for 5 minutes) may help some people prone to frequent cramps. Stand about 2 to 3 feet from a wall, keep your feet flat on the grand and bend forward to lean on the wall until you can feel that stttttrrrreeeetttccchhhh! Do this several times and hold for as long as you can manage.
If you are prone to night cramps, try using a pillow to prop up your feet in bed if you sleep on your back, and keep blankets loose so your feet aren't restricted.
Athletes: Avoid Being Sidelined By Cramping
Athletes are especially prone to cramping. The combination of salt loss, fluid loss and muscle fatigue, particularly in those who are "salty sweaters" makes them a prime candidate for a charley horse.
Diets should contain enough salt (sodium) to supplement that loss, but don't go overboard.
Replenishing salt and other electrolytes during a race or prolonged training with certain sports drinks is also a good idea, but avoid consuming sports drinks that are high in sugar. Time spent stretching before and after an event is time well spent if you want to limit the occurrence of cramps.
Natural Remedies And Other Treatments
Eating foods that are high in potassium (like bananas, dried fruit, mushrooms, apple cider vinegar), calcium (dairy products, leafy greens, sardines) or magnesium (beans, nuts, green vegetables) can help maintain the balance of salts in your body. Some people, such as athletes, lose a lot of salt through excessive sweating, and may need to add slightly more salt to their diet, to avoid hyponatremia which can lead to cramps.
Medicine For Cramps
Although quinine has been used for cramps in the past, it is no longer recommended by the FDA for treatment of night-time leg cramps due to toxicity.
If your cramps persist despite self-help measures, see your doctor. There are other medicines that could be considered, and pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be helpful.
Your doctor can determine if you need a mineral supplement, such as magnesium, and may conduct further investigations to try and establish a cause.
Finished: Muscle Cramps: Is There Anything To Worry About?
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- Muscle Cramp. Mayo Clinic. 2021 http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/home/ovc-20186047
- Hand or foot spasms. Medline Plus. 2021 https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003194.htm
- Don’t Let Foot Cramps and Charley Horses Slow You Down 7 causes and remedies for foot cramps and charley horses. Revised Sept 10, 2020. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/10/dont-let-foot-cramps-charley-horses-slow/