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Why we get muscle cramps and how to avoid them

How to avoid crampsMost of us have experienced a sudden, painful muscle cramp leaving us gasping in pain and desperately trying to stretch out the affected muscle.

Muscle cramps are more common in the calf or foot muscles and while the exact cause of cramps is unknown, they are often associated with muscle strain or overuse.

Risk factors may include include dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and poor physical condition including tight, inflexible muscles, according to the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel.

Older people with reduced muscles mass and pregnant women are also at greater risk of muscle cramps according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dehydration, Electrolytes and Muscle Cramps:

Dehydration and sodium lost through sweat have long been thought a common cause of cramps, first hypothesised more than a century ago when it was found that the men who stoked fires on ships – hot and sweaty work – commonly suffered cramps.

And while there seems to be a link, the jury is still out.

A 2005 study on 13 healthy college-aged males measured the incidence and time to onset of muscle cramps when they exercised in hot and humid (60 per cent) conditions, with and without fluid and sodium consumption.

They found that those who consumed a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage while exercising took twice as long to experience a cramp as when they consumed no fluids at all.

However, 69 per cent of the subjects who were hydrated and supplemented with electrolytes still experienced muscle cramps, with the study’s authors saying “it appears that dehydration and electrolyte loss are not the sole causes of exercise-associated muscle cramps.”.

While the evidence is not conclusive, it is known that “Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Sports Dieticians Australia state something similar. In an article about cramping, they write that while there is no evidence on the direct role electrolytes and fluid consumption plays in preventing cramps, dehydration “can contribute to premature muscle fatigue which does increase the risk of cramping.”.

“It is important to replace adequate amounts of fluid and sodium to minimise the level of dehydration during exercise, especially in hot/humid conditions,” they say, while also encouraging carbohydrate consumption.

“Adequate carbohydrate before and during exercise may prevent premature muscle fatigue [which increases] the risk of cramping.”

Cramp Treatment

The Better Health Channel says that there has been very little research done on the most effective treatment of muscle cramps, however state most cramps will resolve after a few seconds or minutes.

They recommend stretching and massaging the affected muscle and using an icepack on the muscle as treatment options, as well as some medications.

They recommend seeing a doctor if you are experiencing regular muscle cramps or your cramps are lasting longer than a few minutes.

Muscle Cramp Prevention Strategies:

  • Increase physical fitness
  • Regularly stretch
  • Warm up and cool down when you exercise
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Consume a good diet
  • Get a massage – it may reduce muscle tension
  • Wear properly fitted shoes and avoid high heels.