Muscle Cramps: Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention
Let’s talk muscle cramps. They’re uncomfortable, and they have a habit of popping up at the most inconvenient times – like those charley horses you might get suddenly in the middle of the night when you’re trying to get some sleep. A muscle cramp is defined as a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles 1. While generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily difficult or impossible to use the affected muscle(s).
Muscle cramps are usually caused by overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain, or simply holding a certain position for a prolonged period of time 2. They are often caused by extended periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly during hot weather. Some medications or certain medical conditions have also been known to cause muscle cramps.
Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles – most commonly, the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp pain, you might also experience or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.
Most of the time, muscle cramps will disappear on their own, and the ones that are serious enough to require medical care are pretty rare. However, you should seek medical attention if your muscle cramps are as follows:
- Cause severe discomfort
- Are associated with leg swelling, redness, or skin changes
- Are associated with muscle weakness
- Happen frequently
- Don't improve with self-care
- Aren't associated with an obvious cause, like strenuous exercise
In some cases, muscle cramps may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
- Inadequate blood supply. Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs – arteriosclerosis of the extremities – can cause cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after exercise is ceased.
- Nerve compression. Compression of nerves in your spine – lumbar stenosis – also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain normally worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position, such as the gait and position you’d use when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you, may improve or delay the onset of symptoms.
- Mineral depletion. Too little potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Diuretics, which are medications often prescribed for high blood pressure, can also deplete these minerals.
Risk factors that could increase your risk of developing muscle cramps include:
- Age. As people age, they lose muscle mass, meaning that the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.
- Dehydration. People who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports or activities frequently develop muscle cramps.
- Pregnancy. Muscle cramps can also be common during pregnancy.
- Medical conditions. You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver, or thyroid disorders.
In order to prevent muscle cramps, the following steps can be taken:
Avoid dehydration. Drink plenty of fluids every day. The amount you need depends on what you eat, your gender, your activity level, the weather, your health, your age, and what medications you take. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. That’s why it’s important to replenish fluid levels in regular intervals during activity, as well as continue drinking water or other fluids after you're finished.
Stretch your muscles. Stretch before and after you use any muscles for an extended period. For example, if you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bike for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you're sleeping.
Take a magnesium supplement. Since magnesium plays a role in the neuromuscular transmission and muscle contraction, it has been hypothesized that magnesium deficiency may predispose to muscle cramps3. We recommend taking our NATURELO Magnesium supplement if you often experience muscle cramps.