Muscle Cramps: Causes and Prevention

August 25, 2009 - Posted by Christa

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to an awful pain in your calf muscle? I know I have! Sometimes, my calf will still be a little sore the next day. Not fun!  My grandpa used to call these charley horses. Cute name, but cramps can be really painful!

I’ve learned that cramps are actually very common. Almost everyone has had or will experience them in their lifetime – one statistic estimates that 95% of people have dealt with cramps. Of the many varieties, the most common cramps tend to occur in our legs and feet.

So what causes this painful, though usually short-lived, problem? Some of the most common causes include:

Vigorous Activity. When participating in high-energy sports or even an activity you are simply not accustomed to, cramps can occur. Sometimes they will happen while you are engaged in the activity, although they can also develop many hours after you’ve finished.

Dehydration. Another cause, closely linked to vigorous activity, is dehydration. These are more common in warm weather and can sometimes be an early sign of heat stroke.

Low Blood Calcium, Magnesium. If you have low blood levels of either calcium or magnesium, the excitability of both nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate is increased. Cramps experienced during pregnancy can often be linked to this cause.

The good news is there are a variety of ways to reduce your chances of experience muscle cramping. Here are a few easy things you can do:

Warm Up and Cool Down. When you are about to try a new or vigorous activity, take the time to properly warm up and cool down with some stretches. Keeping the muscles limber will help prevent involuntarily muscle spasms from turning into a full-blown cramp.

Stay Hydrated. To maintain proper hydration, particularly during high-energy activities, you should start hydrating yourself 3 to 4 hours prior to the activity. In fact, it’s a good idea have water nearby throughout the day. It will encourage you to stay hydrated at all times. (I have a big 32 oz water mug that I keep at my desk all day!)

Despite prevention, sometimes cramps will still occur.  Stretching the muscle out is a great way to help relieve the cramp. When I wake up with a leg cramp, I carefully get out of bed and use the wall for support to stretch out that leg.  Within minutes, the cramp usually passes and I can go back to sleep!

Another method you can try is to gently massage the muscle. You will notice that during a cramp, the muscle is very tight and massage will help it to relax. A hot bath or hot pad may also help relax the muscle.

After I learned all of this, I still had one question left unanswered. Why do people sometimes refer to leg cramps as charley horses? Did you know that a charley horse is actually believed to be an old American baseball reference?

During a game, Charlie (Old Hoss) Radbourn developed a leg cramp as he rounded third base. As he limped over the home plate, a teammate asked, “What’s the problem, Charley Hoss?” Charley replied, “My leg is tied up in knots!”


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