Anyone who has had a “charley horse,” which statistics say is most of us, knows how intense and debilitating they can be. With something so painful its hard to believe, but muscle cramps are generally harmless annoyances, although on rare occasions they can indicate underlying medial conditions that can be serious. Perhaps we can look into this issue a bit more to gain an understanding of what can be done to prevent muscle cramps, and what we can do to deal with them if they do occur.
What Are Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are basically involuntary movement of muscles that we can normally control. They come on unexpectedly, and can last from seconds to minutes. Muscle cramps may be mild or so intense that the pain is searing and unbearable. They may involve one muscle or even a small part of a muscle, or groups of related muscles that normally work together.
Muscle cramps are a very ordinary part of the human condition. It is estimated that approximately 95% of the population experiences muscle cramps, or muscle spasms as they are also known, at some point in their lives. They may occur at any age, but they are more common as we grow older. They can occur in any muscle of the body, even internal muscles that control organ function, but they are most commonly found in the extremities and especially in the thighs, calves, feet, and hands.
Why Do Muscle Cramps Occur?
In order to best understand the ins and outs of muscle cramps, it would be helpful to go over the basics of how the muscular system normally operates. Our bodies are a finely tuned machine, and when everything is working smoothly, the process works flawlessly. It all begins in mission central: the brain. When we tell the brain that we want to contract a muscle, it sends out electrical and chemical messages via nerve cells called motor neurons that travel down the spinal chord to the muscle. At the muscle, chemical stimulants release calcium ions that are stored within the muscle which causes a reaction between two intramuscular proteins (actin and myosin). This creates a “ratchet-like” motion that literally pulls the fixed ends of the muscle closer together and causes contraction. When it is time for the muscle to relax again, the whole process runs in reverse. The calcium ions are recaptured, and this causes the actin/myosin reaction to loosen the muscle ends and the muscle returns to its normal resting position.
Muscle spasms can happen anytime during this process if a malfunction occurs. The neurons may not transmit the messages properly. The muscle fibers may be too sensitive or not sensitive enough and not respond properly. The calcium ions may not be present in sufficient numbers, or they may not be recaptured quickly enough resulting in prolonged contraction and a muscle spasm. All of these malfunctions can be caused by disease or nervous system toxins, but in the vast majority of cases, muscle cramps are simply the result of excessive physical activity, especially using muscles that are not normally used repetitively, or inadequate amounts of fluids and / or minerals. That is good news because it means that most muscle spasms can be avoided by taking preventative measures.
Are There Different Types of Muscle Cramps?
Yes, muscle cramps are classified into several different categories. They are all caused by different factors. Below are the major forms of muscle spasms and the various causes that may trigger them:
These are by far the most commonly experienced types of cramps. True cramps include the classic “charley horse,” and they may involve one muscle or a group of related muscles. True cramps are caused by a several different factors or circumstances:
- Vigorous or repetitive activities: Probably one of the most common circumstances when an individual might experience muscle cramping is when they use a muscle or muscle group that they are not used to using often. This can also occur when one is in an unusual stationary position for an extended period of time. A good example might be working in close quarters underneath a car, or spending long hours on a ladder doing some house painting, which might cause you to use your leg muscles extensively. Gripping an object for a long time, such as a paint brush, might result in spasms in the muscles of your hands. If you did this all the time, your muscles would get used to it, but unusual activities are common triggers for true muscle cramps.
- Inadequate levels of calcium / magnesium: This is another very common cause for true muscle cramps. These two minerals are critical for the proper operation of the nerve endings and muscles associated with movement. Insufficient amounts of calcium and magnesium can be the result of a poor diet, and are also a problem for many women during pregnancy. Low mineral levels can also be caused by dehydration, which is a common problem amongst many senior citizens. For many folks, natural thirst decreases with age, and when you perspire you lose minerals such as these. Calcium and magnesium can also be lost through the use of diuretics, through vomiting when ill, or because of an under active parathyroid gland. Tip: Studies have shown that without adequate amounts of Vitamin D in your system, you cannot absorb calcium or magnesium properly. You can solve this problem in several ways. It is recommended that everyone should spend at least 20 minutes per day (year-round) in direct sunlight whenever possible. This is the best natural source of vitamin D. The next best option would be the use of a natural Vitamin D supplement because it may be difficult to obtain enough vitamin D through dietary sources alone.
- Dehydration: Intense labor, especially in hot weather, can result in dehydration. This is another common cause for muscle spasms. Examples would be folks who work outside in extreme conditions, or an athlete that must perform in extreme heat. Along with water loss, the loss of sodium and potassium can be a big problem and can lead to muscle cramping and other more serious medical conditions as well. These days, this is a relatively simple problem to solve. There are several quality “sports drinks” on the market that do a pretty good job of replenishing these lost fluids and minerals. Low levels of potassium are a common source of muscle cramps.
- Fluid Shifts: A less common source of muscle cramping is the rapid change of bodily fluids that occurs in a procedure such as kidney dialysis. The levels of fluid and minerals change so quickly that the body often has a hard time keeping up.
- Rest cramps: These are most commonly experienced at night while sleeping, and they occur most often in elderly folks. Researchers are still not exactly certain as to why rest cramps strike, but it may have something to do with stretching muscles in a way that is not normally done during the day. For example, some people point their toes differently when they are sleeping, and this may lead to muscle spasms. Rest cramps can be quite painful, and very disturbing to the sleep cycle of some individuals.
Much less common than true cramps, dystonic cramps occur when muscles that are near ones under use are stimulated to contract even though they are not needed. In a sense, dystonic cramps happen when the electrical and chemical stimuli to a muscle “leak” into surrounding muscles and cause them to respond. This often happens in areas controlled by small groups of muscles, such as those around the eyes, jaw, or neck.
These kinds of cramps or spasms happen when a muscle contracts normally, but is then unable to relax and the contraction is extended. These types of muscle cramps are quite rare, and they are often caused by chemical imbalances within the muscle that cause the nerves to malfunction. Certain inherited genetic diseases, such as McArdle’s disease, are often responsible for this phenomena.
This form of muscle cramping is sometimes called a “full-body cramp” because it causes all of the muscles of the body to be stimulated simultaneously. Fortunately, it does not usually cause multiple muscles to painfully cramp all at once. The pain of that would be unbearable. Some distinct cramping may occur, but throughout the body the individual may experience tingling and numbness rather than intense cramping. Tetany is usually a function of low levels of calcium and magnesium.
How Can I Best Avoid or Treat Muscle Cramps?
There are many ways to deal with or prevent muscle cramps without resorting to drugs or invasive procedures. Here are some tips:
- Stretch, stretch, stretch: Gently and consistently stretching your muscles to keep them limber is by far the best way to avoid muscle cramping or spasms. A daily stretching routine is essential. I once heard it said that we should learn from our dogs, who typically stretch faithfully every time they get up. Stretch when arising in the morning. Stretch before bed. Stretch before starting any strenuous or unusual exercise. Stretch after exercising. You can never stretch too much. Stretching also helps to alleviate cramps if they do occur.
- Diet: Make sure you include plenty of foods that are high in the minerals that prevent cramping: Potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Here are some suggested foods:
- Potassium: Apricots, bananas, figs, kiwi, spinach, squash, prunes.
- Magnesium: Black beans, broccoli, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, okra, raisins.
- Calcium: Dairy products, canned salmon and sardines (with bones), eggs, corn bread.
- Stay Hydrated: If you are getting enough minerals in your diet, drinking ample amounts of pure water daily should be sufficient. If you do not get enough dietary minerals or engage in intense physical workouts, you may want to use a sports drink as well.
- Massage: Firm, gentle massage will help keep your muscles loose and can bring relief during a muscle spasm too.
- Ice: Many folks find relief from cramps by applying an ice pack. This tends to help the muscle relax.
While not particularly dangerous, muscle cramps can be painful and interfere with your daily (or nightly) activities. As with most health concerns, maintaining good habits that lead you towards wellness will alleviate many problems before they ever occur. Living in a way that helps you to stay well is the best choice when it comes to your health.