Cramps have got to be one of the single most uncomfortable, uncontrollable experiences EVER, usually because they tend to arise at very INCONVENIENT times… like when there is 5 minutes to go in a crucial rugby game…or when you’re fast asleep cosy under the blankets and bang your calf goes into spasm and you’re thrust into the cold pulling your foot this way and that way to try and stretch it out. Sleep ruined.
By definition a ‘muscle cramp’ is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle. Often they can be accompanied by a visible or palpable hardening of the muscle.
Lasting for anywhere between a few seconds up to 15 minutes often one will experience multiple cramping episodes before they finally resolve.
Cramps can take on several different forms however for the purpose of this article I’m just going to focus on what are known as true cramps.
True cramps involve a muscle or group of muscles that work together to produce or bring about movement of a particular body part. These can in response to several factors:
Vigorous or endurance activity: when a group of muscles are repeatedly used for one activity often this can induce fatigue causing the muscle to go into spasm. Similarly if you use a group of muscles to sustain an awkward or unaccustomed position that requires repetitive muscle activation can result in cramps.
Rest cramps: my worst enemy. Commonly occurring at night and referred to as nocturnal cramps these cramps are painful and easily the most frustrating way to ruin a good night’s sleep. The exact cause is unknown. Some theories are centred around lack of certain nutrients and electrolytes within the body, commonly magnesium which is vital for muscle relaxation and repair. Low blood levels of magnesium and calcium in particular can increase the excitability of the nerve endings and the muscles that they stimulate predisposing you to rest cramps. Many of the night cramp ‘remedies’ you will buy off the pharmacy shelves are based on this ‘theory’.
Dehydration: strenuous activity resulting in excessive perspiration can commonly lead to cramps. When you sweat or perspire not only to you lose water but you lose vital electrolytes and salts that are essential to proper efficient muscle function. The problem is that a lot of athletes only replace the water, leaving cells depleted of sodium resulting in cramps. These are more common in hotter weather as we tend to sweat more (unless you’re like me and sweat ALL THE TIME). To prevent this form of cramping replace lost electrolytes with hydration gels, water with added sea salt or some sort of sports re-hydration drink.
A few other things to note are that yes some medications can cause cramps. I’m not a doctor and my knowledge of pharmaceuticals only extends so far so if you think you may fall into this category chat to your doctor! Likewise certain medical conditions can lead to cramping, so chat to your doctor about these too!
What can be done? Most skeletal cramps will resolve if you can stretch the muscle out. The stretch generally needs to be held for 20-30 seconds to be effective and prevent re-occurrence of the cramp. If camps are a result of dehydration or fluid loss replacement of electrolytes is essential.
Heat and gentle massage can also assist with reducing muscle spasm.
Can they be prevented? Unfortunately no. And no matter if you’re lunch time jogger or super fit iron man no-one is immune to cramping and I guarantee every one of you will suffer from cramps at some stage.
Personally I have found a remedy that seems to help, its by no means fool proof and I still do suffer the occasional nocturnal cramp, especially when I have had a hard week of training. I stretch DAILY particularly my calves which is my problem area for cramps, and I take a daily magnesium supplement before bed to assist with muscle relaxation and recovery.