Have you woken up in the middle of the night with a painful tightening in your calf that makes you shoot out of bed? Did you just jog for a while and now feel that your leg muscles have cramped up making it difficult for you to even walk?
Don’t worry! There are many reasons why your muscles may cramp and there are easy ways to treat it. It doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doing anything wrong. It may just be that your muscles are fatigued and are protesting a bit. Have you been drinking enough water? Have you been stretching enough? How long have you been holding your stretches for?
What’s happening here? What actually is a muscle cramp?
A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. Muscle cramps can be excruciating painful, but you probably won’t die if you experience one.
As we normally use our muscles, they alternately contract and relax as we move our limbs back and forth. Similarly, the muscles that maintain our posture contract and relax in a synchronized fashion. A muscle that involuntarily contracts without our consciously willing it is called a “spasm.” If the spasm is forceful and sustained, it becomes a cramp. A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Muscle cramps cause a visible or palpable hardening of the involved muscle.
How long can they last? They seem to last forever!
Muscle cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour or occasionally longer. It is not uncommon for a cramp to recur multiple times until it finally goes away. The cramp may involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle, or several muscles that usually act together, such as those that flex adjacent fingers. Some cramps involve the simultaneous contraction of muscles that ordinarily move body parts in opposite directions.
Any of the muscles that are under our voluntary control (skeletal muscles) can cramp. Cramps of the extremities, especially the legs and feet, and most particularly the calf (the classic “charley horse”), are very common.
Many factors may contribute to muscle cramping, including:
- Poor blood circulation in the legs
- Overexertion of the calf muscles while exercising
- Insufficient stretching before exercise
- Exercising in the heat
- Muscle fatigue
- Magnesium and/or potassiuim deficiency
- Calcium deficiency in pregnant women
- Malfunctioning nerves, which could be caused by a problem such as a spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in the neck or back
- (Even some medications can have a side effect of muscle cramping.)
Are you more at risk for muscle cramping?
Factors that may increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
- Age. Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle may get overstressed more easily. This may increase the risk for muscle cramps.
- Dehydration. Athletes and (non-athletes!) who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports and exercise frequently develop muscle cramps.
- Pregnancy. Muscle cramps also are more common during pregnancy.
- Medical conditions. You may be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders
What you can do:
Before you start panicking about nerve damage or magnesium deficiencies, try stretching. The key to stretching is holding the stretch in a static position for at least 30 seconds. If you don’t hold the stretch for that long, the muscle just bounces back into a shortened position. This may cause the muscle to cramp again, which is obviously just counteracting what you are trying to do. You want to lengthen the muscle and get it to relax.
You can also try:
- Massaging your calf muscle (or getting someone else to massasge it!)
- Applying heat to the muscle
- Rehydrate (drink some water!)
- Electrolyte repletion (grab some Gatorade)
- Hormone treatment (speak with your physician)
- Calcium Supplementation
Since the calf muscle is the most common muscle cramp people experience, it’s important to keep that muscle stretched out. There are actually two sets of calf muscles. Try these stretching techniques for both of those muscle groups.
Gastrocnemius (outer calf): Sit with both legs straight. Loop a belt around the ball of one foot and grasp each end of the belt. Flex your foot back toward your ankle, toes toward your knee. Hold this position for 30 seconds minimum. Feel the stretch in your calf.
Soleus (inner calf): Sit with one leg straight and the other bent. Grasp the bottom of the foot on the bent leg. Keeping your heel on the ground, pull your foot toward your body as far as you can. Again, hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
If you feel that you are experiencing consistent muscle cramps and your self-remedies are not improving the cramping, you may want to consult with your physician. Different medical conditions may result in muscle cramping as well. You may want to ask your physician about other treatment options.