Have you ever woken up in the middle of the light with a debilitating pain shooting down your leg where the muscles have cramped? Your muscles get tight causing a spasm and you have to wake up, put weight on the foot and stretch the muscles to relax them.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are involuntary muscle contractions. They occur suddenly, are very painful, but usually resolve quickly.
Please note that a muscle spasm is different than a muscle twitch. A muscle twitch, or fasciculation, is an uncontrolled fine movement of a small segment of a larger muscle that can be seen under the skin. Muscle cramps are caused when a muscle gets tight and contracts, without you trying to do so. The cramps may involve all or part of one or more muscles. The most commonly involved muscle groups are:
– Back of the lower leg/calf
– Back of the thigh (hamstrings)
– Front of the thigh (quadriceps)
– Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.
Muscle cramps are common and often occur when a muscle is overused or injured. These can occur while you play tennis or golf, bowl, swim, or do any other exercise. These cramps can be stopped by stretching the muscle. The cramping muscle may feel hard or bulging.
Working out when you haven’t had enough fluids can cause dehydration and hence cramp the muscles. This also happens when you have low levels of minerals such as potassium or calcium, especially during a stomach flu, diarrhea or vomiting.
They can also be triggered by:
– Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
– Kidney failure
Dehydration: A Common Cause of Muscle Cramps
It is commonly thought that dehydration and depletion of electrolytes will lead to muscle spasm and cramping. Muscle cells require enough water, glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to allow the proteins within them to interact and develop an organized contraction. Abnormal supply of these elements can cause the muscle to become irritable and go into spasm.
As the level of water loss increases, more symptoms can become apparent, for example dry mouth, nausea and vomiting.
Can Muscle Cramps be a Sign of Warning?
Most of us associate muscle cramps to dehydration, and quite often that is true. But what if you drink sufficient amount of water and still have muscle cramps? Could it be a sign that there is a more serious medical problem on your hands?
Spasms may occur when a muscle is overused and tired, particularly if it is overstretched or if it has been held in the same position for a prolonged period of time. In effect, the muscle cell runs out of energy and fluid and becomes hyperexcitable, resulting in a forceful contraction. This spasm may involve part of a muscle, the whole muscle, or even adjacent muscles.
Diseases of the nervous system, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple or spinal cord injury, can be associated with muscle spasm. Writer’s cramps of the hand and fingers are similarly caused by prolonged use of the small muscles in the hand.
Leg spasms are often seen related to exercise, but cramps may also be seen at night involving calf and toe muscles. Nocturnal leg cramps and restless legs syndrome are considered a type of sleep disturbance and should be checked out by your physician. Atherosclerosis or narrowing of the arteries (peripheral artery disease) may also lead to muscle spasm and cramps, again because adequate blood supply and nutrients are not able to be delivered to the appropriate muscle. Peripheral artery disease can decrease the flow of blood to the legs, causing pain with activity. There may also be associated muscle cramps.
Overuse as a cause of skeletal muscle spasm is often seen in athletes who are doing strenuous exercise in a hot environment. This is also an occupational issue with construction workers or others working in a hot environment. Usually, the spasms will occur in the large muscles that are being asked to do the work. Remember, overuse can also occur with routine daily activities like shoveling snow, or mowing or raking grass, causing muscle spasms of the neck, shoulder, and back.
Unfamiliar exercise activities can also cause muscle spasms to occur. Abdominal spasms can occur when a person decides to begin working their abdominal muscles by doing sit-ups and does too many too quickly.
How To Find Relief From Muscle Cramps?
Prevention is the key to most skeletal muscle spasm episodes. Since they are often associated with dehydration and electrolyte disturbances, it is important to keep the body well hydrated. If the fluid loss is due to an illness with fever or vomiting and diarrhea, controlling the symptoms will help limit fluid loss and prevent spasms. Similarly, for those who work or exercise in a hot environment, drinking enough fluids to keep hydrated is very important.
The most common cause of muscle cramps during sports activity is not getting enough fluids. Often, drinking water will ease the cramping. However, water alone doesn’t always help. Salt tablets or sports drinks, which also replenish lost minerals, can be helpful.
Muscles should also be prepared for the activity that they are expected to do. Just as athletes stretch and warm up before the game, non-athletes should warm up before heavy labor, including jobs like raking, mowing, and shoveling snow. Should a large skeletal muscle go into spasm, the initial treatment is to gently stretch the muscle back to length to break the spasm cycle and resolve the acute situation.
Further treatment will depend upon the underlying cause of the muscle spasms. For muscles that have been damaged or strained, medications may be required for short-term pain relief, including anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, Narcotics, and Muscle Relaxants.
Change your workouts so that you are exercising within your ability. Drink plenty of fluids while exercising and increase your potassium intake. Orange juice and bananas are great sources of potassium. Make sure you also stretch to improve flexibility.
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