When it comes to muscle cramps, the most commonly affected muscles are the gastrocnemius (calf muscles), triceps (the muscles in the back of your upper arms), the hamstrings (the muscles behind your thighs), and the quadriceps (the muscles in front of your thighs).
A muscle cramp is a painful spasm of your muscle. It’s caused by a prolonged tightening of that muscle, leading to it being shortened. The spasm can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes. You do not have any control of this spasm and the muscle often feels hard and painful. The muscle may remain tender for up to 24 hours after a leg cramp.
The exact cause of muscle cramping is still under debate, with many varied possible causes suggested. It is generally thought that spasms can be caused by inadequate stretching, muscle fatigue or lack of oxygen to the muscle. Other causes can also include heat, dehydration, and/or lack of salt and minerals (electrolytes). There is evidence to suggest that there may also be abnormal nerve activity at the level of the spine.
Research utilizing EMG studies (involves testing the electrical activity of muscles) on athletes has demonstrated that the most likely cause of cramping was muscle fatigue or a tear in the affected muscle itself.
The EMG studies showed noticeably higher electrical activity in the nerves that controlled the cramped muscles. The researchers concluded that the muscle cramps appeared to be caused by exercise-induced damage to the muscles themselves. If that’s the case, muscle cramping can be prevented by slowing down when you feel tightness or soreness in any particular muscle.
The type of treatments required for muscle cramps depends on what is causing them. If you’re having occasional muscle cramps from physical activity or overusing certain muscles, you can usually take care of the cramps yourself. Simply stopping the activity will stop the cramping. If the cramps continue, stretching the cramping muscle – although painful – should release the tension of the muscle.
Some people find that using ice packs can help relax the tense muscles; others have better luck with heat. Massage is usually of great help as well. If the cause of the cramping is dehydration, then fluids with electrolytes (sports drinks, for example) are essential to balance the fluid loss.
Medications are generally not recommended or used for treatment of muscle cramps because of their side effects. Most muscle cramps are short-lived. By the time the medication has started working the cramping has already stopped.
Since exercise-associated muscle cramping occurs most often in healthy individuals, the important issue is to control cramping frequency and intensity. This can be done through preventative measures, such as proper preparation and stretching, and ensuring adequate fluid intake before undertaking physical exercise or activity.
Muscle and skeletal problems, especially those related to gait and posture, can often lead to excessive stress on muscles, which may ultimately cause cramps or even injury. For this reason it is wise for any serious athlete to have your health care provider perform a posture and gait analysis.