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Health and Fitness News

Cramping Your Style

Why muscle cramps happen and what you can do to make them go away.

Painful and annoying, muscle cramps are generally harmless. That doesn’t make the experience any better.

Maybe you wake up in the night with a sharp pain in your calf muscle or perhaps you get sudden pain in your legs while exercising. When the cramps set in, the tight muscle makes it impossible to move. The pain finally subsides, but you wonder why it happened, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from happening again. Keep reading to learn answers to these very questions.

What Are They?

Sometimes your muscles suddenly contract and tighten without you meaning to make it happen. This involuntary contracting and tightening is called a muscle spasm. When a spasm occurs, it’s known as a muscle cramp. A cramp in the calf muscle is sometimes called a charley horse. Regardless of what muscle is affected, muscle cramps come on without warning and catch you off guard.

What Do They Feel Like?

The main symptom of a muscle cramp is sudden, sharp pain. In addition to pain, your muscles feel hard and tight. The spasm may last a few seconds to a few minutes. While any muscle can cramp up, it happens most often in your calves, feet, thighs, hands, arms, abdomen, or chest.

Who’s at Risk?

Anyone at any age can get a muscle cramp, but older people; athletes; pregnant women; overweight people; and those with diabetes or a disorder of the thyroid, liver, or nerves are most at risk.

Why Do They Happen?

Sometimes there may be no apparent cause for a muscle cramp. Most of the time they happen after a long, strenuous workout or challenging activity, especially in hot weather. They may be due to poor circulation in your muscles or skipping your warm up before exercise.

Medical conditions such as narrowing of the arteries, compression of nerves in your spine, dehydration, or an electrolyte (potassium, magnesium, and calcium) imbalance may increase your risk of muscle cramps.

Some medications can cause muscle cramps as a side effect. These include drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, asthma, Parkinson’s, and high cholesterol. Talk with your physician if you’re on medication and suspect it is causing excessive cramping.

How Are They Treated?

Muscle cramps usually go away without treatment, but there are things you can do to relieve the pain in the moment.

As a first step, try gently stretching the muscle. If the cramp is in your hamstring (the back of you thigh) or calf, stand on the painful leg and slightly bend your knee. To relieve a cramp in your quadriceps (the front of your thigh), hold onto something sturdy, stand on your good leg, and gently pull your other foot up toward your backside. When you wake in the night with a cramp in your foot or calf, flex your foot up toward your knee.

You can also massage the tight muscle, apply ice to sore muscles, or sit in a hot bath with Epsom salt to find relief for tight muscles. If your muscle cramps could be caused by dehydration, drink plenty of fluids.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if muscle cramps happen frequently or for no apparent reason, are severe, last longer than a few minutes, come with swelling or reddening of the skin, or cause muscle weakness.