A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Take control of muscle cramps

What are muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps can stop you in your tracks and even wake you from a sound sleep.

Cramps are skeletal muscle spasms, mostly affecting calves, lower-extremity muscles like thighs or arches of your feet,  hands, arms and abdomen along the rib cage.

Although the cause isn’t always known, muscle cramps can be heat- or sports-related . Advice to prevent either is the same.

Heat-related muscle cramps Three runners stretching their calf muscles

Individual muscle bundles can be affected by heat-related muscle cramps. Electrolyte imbalance, sodium depletion, excessive sweating/fluid loss or a spinal neurological problem may be triggers.

When you aren’t acclimatized to hot and humid weather, you’re more apt to cramp because of increased sweating that can rapidly throw your electrolyte balance off-kilter.

Sports-related cramps

Exercise-induced cramps can affect an entire muscle or muscle groups and suspected factors include:

  • Large body mass When body heat increases in fatty tissue, your body’s natural heat exchange mechanism may have more difficulty keeping up.
  • Age – Age affects your body’s ability to efficiently remove heat. This is especially true for the very young and elderly but can affect you at any age depending on your fitness level.
  • Conditioning level – When your body isn’t used to more demanding fitness workouts that produce increased metabolic heat, you’re less efficient at cooling down.
  • Poor hydration – Drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after working out helps you efficiently dissipate heat produced while you exercise.
  • History of heat illness – If you repeatedly experience cramping and heat-related illness during workouts you may have a chronic problem with dehydration or poor nutrition. Recent bouts with heat illness also can make it more difficult to rehydrate quickly.
  • Medications and other substances – Diuretic medications like blood pressure medicine or alcohol can decrease hydration because they cause more frequent urination. Antihistamines, decongestants and amphetamine medications, such as allergy medications, decongestants and stimulant medications for ADHD respectively, increase metabolism, causing blood vessels to constrict. Both types of medications increase potential cramping.
  • Viral illness or infection – Vomiting or diarrhea can cause dehydration, leading to cramping.

Control what you can

Here’s what you can do to help prevent cramping:

  • Acclimate and condition – Avoid doing too much too fast too soon. Help your body get used to temperature and weather changes by working up to your desired performance level. Your muscles, heart and kidneys will become more efficient in handling excess generated heat.
  • Avoid environmental extremes – Try to perform your workouts in less hot or humid environments.
  • Wear appropriate clothing – Clothing allowing sweat to evaporate from the body increases efficiency of the body’s natural ability to cool itself.
  • Let yourself rest – Rehydrate and cool down. Do this by resting in a cool place, changing into fresh clothing or consuming fluids.

This post provided by Sports Wrap, from Marshfield Clinic Sports Medicine.

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