Muscle cramps and what you can do to help relieve them
Most of us know that feeling – the sudden, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle and hard knotting that hits when you least expect and disappears within seconds to minutes. You might have felt it deep into the 2nd half of a tough footy game, or woken up in the middle of the night to your toes and calves tearing themselves apart.
Cramp is notoriously unpredictable and a common issue I get asked about in the office and out and about at different sporting events on the Northern Beaches.
Every muscle in the body is capable of suffering from a cramp, although it’s your legs that are far more likely to experience them.
What causes cramps?
This is where it gets complicated. Cramps can have a number of causes and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to be able to say 100% what caused an individual cramp.
However, most benign cramps are caused by one, or a combination of:
- Dehydration/perspiration – “heat cramps”
- Fatigue – fatigued and dehydration during warm-weather sports is a recipe for muscle cramps.
- Overuse – Muscles that are overused can become fatigued, which can lead to a cramp during physical activity that may be a protective mechanism to prevent further damage to the area.
- Mineral depletion –Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium are contributors to leg cramps.
- Pregnancy – Muscle cramps also are common during pregnancy. The third trimester of pregnancy is associated with leg cramps in up to 30% of women.
- Tense or stiff muscles – Warm up and warm down!
- Medical conditions.You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.
- Nerve compression in your spine (lumbar stenosis) can cause cramp-like pain in your legs.
- Poor blood circulation
Cramps that occur during or soon after a bout of physical activity are called exercise-associated muscle cramps, and these are commonly experienced as a “painful, spasmodic contraction of the skeletal muscle that occurs during or immediately after muscular exercise”.
Exercise related muscle cramps in the quads, hamstrings and calves are common in Northern Beaches athletes who compete in multi-day, endurance & long distance events, and high intensity sports like footy, volleyball, soccer and tennis.
Have you ever heard the saying – Prevention is the best medicine?
Muscle cramps are definitely an area where this is true. While we can’t prevent cramps 100%, we can take steps to reduce the chances of getting them. With multiple theories on how muscle cramps occur, it’s best to tackle the issue from multiple angles prevention strategies such as:
- Avoiding dehydrationDrink plenty of liquids every day and on activity day, replenish those fluids at regular intervals, and continue drinking water or other fluids after you’re finished.
- Stretch your musclesStretch before and after physical activity. If you tend to get leg cramps at night, try stretching before you go to be.
- Give you body carbohydrates The body loves carbs. Making sure your muscles are supplied with good usable energy is a great way to combat cramps. Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source of the body for exercise, and one major storage area is within the muscle as glycogen.Have a small carbohydrate-based snack 1hr prior to exercise such as a piece of fruit and If you’re exercising for a long period top up your carb stores each hour with additional fruit, gels, or lollies to help prevent premature muscle fatigue and cramps.
- Stopping exercise at the onset of the cramp
- Massage therapy
The general theme in preventing and combating cramps is to try and keep your body’s mineral and movement systems balanced.
If you would like to chat with Damien about your personal performance needs, go ahead and book your consultation here.
 Zhou K, West HM, Zhang J, Xu L, Li W. Interventions for leg cramps in pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD010655. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010655.pub2. Accessed 12 February 2021.
 Schwellnus MP, Derman EW, Noakes TD. Aetiology of skeletal muscle “cramps” during exercise: a novel hypothesis. J Sports Sci. 1997;15:277–85.