Types of Muscle Cramps and How to Stop Them
Just imagine that you’re running a race, maybe even coming first, you can see the finish line ahead of you and you might even win or possible beat your personal best. But then, it happens: you get struck down by a painful, debilitating muscle cramp. You’re forced to stop and all your hard work is wasted. It’s a disappointing situation, and one that may be familiar to athletes. Nobody wants to spend weeks in training only to have a muscle cramp stop them from achieving their best, for themselves or for their team.
Cramps can actually occur in any muscle, but we’ll focus on skeletal muscles, since these are the ones typically induced by exercise. Skeletal muscle cramps are painful conditions, usually associated with dehydration and muscle fatigue. As well as the physical discomfort, cramps can be a frustrating experience for sportspeople who want to keep going, so let’s take a closer look at the causes and treatments.
What are muscle cramps?
Muscle cramps occur when a muscle gets stuck in ‘contract’ mode. Skeletal muscles work by periodically contracting and relaxing in order for you to move, but a muscle spasm involves a muscle involuntarily becoming contracted. If the muscle can’t stop contracting for a sustained length of time, it becomes a cramp.
What causes cramps?
There are several theories as to what causes muscle cramps. The main explanations in current sport medicine are dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and muscle fatigue.
- Electrolyte imbalance: Electrolytes are minerals which dissolve as electrically charged particles in the body. Since the contract and relax mechanism of muscles is an electrical one, it’s thought that insufficient electrolytes may cause dysfunction in a muscle’s ability to contract and relax. Electrolytes may be excreted as an athlete sweats during exercise, losing minerals without replacing them.
- Dehydration: Related to the electrolyte theory, it’s thought that dehydration can cause the muscles electrical impulses to become dysfunctional. It can also cause muscles to overheat and become fatigued quickly.
- Muscle fatigue: Overuse of a muscle can cause it to cramp as too much stress is put on the musculo-skeletal system. Cramps tend to occur most often in the main muscles you are using during your workout (such as the legs), and cramps also appear more regularly in muscles which are unconditioned and unused to exercise. Your muscle can experience an overload which causes the electrical impulses to misfire and cause a cramp.
Types of muscle cramps
There are four main types of skeletal muscle cramps:
- ‘True’ cramps: The most common type of cramp, these are typically caused by hyperexcitement of the nerves which cause muscles to contract. The nerves continue firing signals to activate the muscle tissue, without stopping to let the muscle relax. This typically occurs in one muscle or muscle group at a time.
- Tetany cramps: All of the nerves in the body are activated, causing intermittent cramps throughout your whole body. This is commonly caused by electrolyte imbalances, rather than muscle fatigue as the electrical system throughout your body is affected. Sometimes, a Tetany cramp may feel the same as a True cramp, making them hard to distinguish.
- Dystonic cramps: Occurs when a muscle is stimulated, other than the one you intended to use. This is often caused by repetitive motion or muscle overuse. If you spend hours typing or holding one item for an extended period of time, you may experience a dystonic cramp. For example, writers often experience ‘writer’s cramp’ from holding a pen for a long time, which can cause cramps in your arm.
- Other: People can experience cramps as a result of nerve disorders, some medications, vitamin deficiencies and poor circulation.
How to prevent muscle cramps
Prevention is always better than a cure, so take action before you even get your next cramp to avoid it. The major strategies for avoiding cramps are to stay hydrated, keep your muscles conditioned and eat a diet rich in minerals.
- Staying hydrated: Before and during exercises, make sure to drink enough water. This is especially important if you plan to exercises for an hour or longer as sustained perspiration will cause dehydration. Continue to drink water throughout your workout. Some people like to consume sports drinks designed to replace electrolytes during exercises, but be aware of the ingredients as many sports drinks are high in sugar and not necessarily healthy. A natural alternative is coconut water, which is rich in electrolytes.
- A healthy diet: It’s easy to become deficient in electrolytes if you dodn’t have very many to begin with. Eating foods rich in minerals will keep your electrolyte levels up, so that you have plenty before you even start your workout. Eat fruits and vegetables rich in potassium (bananas, kale), magnesium (almonds, walnuts and beans), sodium (salty foods, peanut butter), calcium (milk) and chloride (olives, celery).
- Warm-up properly: Warming up before sport will prepare your muscle for the workload to come and increase blood circulation to the area. The extra blood flow increases muscle temperature and provides oxygen so your muscle will take longer to fatigue.
- Stretch: Make stretching a regular part of your muscle conditioning routine, as this will crate a ‘longer’ muscle which is less prone bunching up and cramping.
How to treat an existing cramp
- Stretching: Forces the muscle out of its contracted state and helps to ‘reset’ the nerve impulses which caused the cramp. While this may be painful, but stretching the cramped muscle one of the fastest ways to relax it.
- Massage: A gentle massage will often help the muscle to relax and increase circulation to the area.
- Apply heat: A heat pack increases circulation to the area, bringing oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to heal the area.
- Apply ice: Icepacks can calm the electrical activity and reduce the pain you experience in a cramp.
- Take a bath with Epsom Salts: These magnesium rich salts act as a muscle relaxant. Alternatively, apply a magnesium spray to the muscle if you don’t have access to a bath.
- Drink pickle water: This may seem strange, but studies have found that eating or drinking a salty substance can fool your brain into thinking it has more electrolytes and help your body to relax the muscle. While you actually are likely to consume some electrolytes this way, the sodium isn’t absorbed into your system quickly enough to stop the cramp.
Muscle cramps are never fun, but you can easily minimize their likelihood and effects if you implement just a few simple habits into your lifestyle and sports routine.