Leg cramps can be a real pain. They can crop up at any time during the day, turning a leisurely stroll through the park or a walk from the den to the fridge into exercise of agonizing futility, sending a scared sufferer to the floor wincing and wailing in pain. It’s a similar deal during the night, when an otherwise sound sleeper suddenly wakes up in bed, startled, grabbing his or her calf and wondering where this real-life nightmare just came from.
There are several ways to describe the almost unbearable pain a leg cramp victim feels at the time of such an attack; one that comes to mind is that a muscle or muscles involved have suddenly turned to rock and some otherworldly power is trying to twist them into a pretzel. Rational thought flies out the window, and this can go on not just for a few seconds, but for several interminable minutes.
What Is Happening?
Any muscle in our bodies can develop a cramp, consisting of intense pain at the site of the cramp accompanied by firmness or tenderness of the muscle that is involved, per medicinenet.com. The cramp is the involuntary contraction of a muscle that occurs without the usual relaxation of the muscle immediately following. The muscle groups usually most susceptible to cramping are the back of the lower leg (the calf, typically), the back of the upper legs (the hamstrings), and the front of the thigh, also known as the quadriceps.
Courtesy of medicinenet.com, here are some interesting facts regarding muscle cramps:
- Such cramps can occur during exercise as well as at rest or at night, while we are asleep (or at least were asleep).
- Common causes of muscle cramps include dehydration and certain medicines.
- Stretching the muscle can nip most muscle cramps in the bud (although you might still have some lingering soreness in that spot, albeit nothing like the cramp itself).
- Preventative measures can include adequate and proper nutrition, sufficient hydration, following proper safety procedures while exercising and awareness of ergonomic factors, such as positioning and support for your hands and wrists while typing.
- It is estimated that 95 percent of all people experience a muscle cramp at some point in their lives.
- Muscle cramps become increasingly frequent as a person ages.
- Some muscle cramps also will be accompanied by noticeable twitching, such as with eyelids.
- There are several types of muscle cramps, which include: true cramps (considered the most common type of skeletal muscle cramp, usually caused by the hyperexcitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscles (plus there are four subsets within the true cramps grouping); tetany cramps (all the body’s nerve cells are activated, causing spasms or cramps throughout the body); and dystonic cramps (usually involve small groups of muscles such as eyelids, jaws, neck, etc.).
Preventing or Dealing with Muscle Cramps
Just like in football, often the best offense against muscle cramps is a good defense; that is, prevent them from happening in the first place (or at least reduce the risk). Here are some tips and strategies:
Per Robbie Clark, a dietitian and a sports nutritionist quoted at The Huffington Post, here are some things to do while the cramp is trying like heck to make your life miserable:
- Stretch: Use light stretches, perhaps those recommended by an exercise physiologist, focused around the muscle groups cramping up.
- Hydrate. OK, so this one comes before the cramp. Stay hydrated to maintain proper fluid balance throughout your body. (Think water throughout the day; sports drinks with electrolytes after a workout.)
- Massage. A gentle massage that lengthens the cramping muscle is the goal here; the hope being to reduce the duration and severity of the cramp.
- Ice. An ice pack applied directly to the muscle for several minutes might help in severe cases.
- Medical. Recurring muscle cramping or a cramp lasting longer than a few minutes might warrant a physician’s attention.
Now for the delicious part – feeding your body properly to, hopefully, prevent those supremely annoying muscle cramps from again making a mess of your day. Here are the four nutrients you are shooting for, per The Huffington Post:
- Sodium. Needed for body-fluid balance and proper blood pressure. The sodium works in tandem with other electrolytes for nerve impulse generation and muscle contraction, Clark says. Sources include cheese, beetroot, carrots, smoked meats and fish, sauerkraut, and olives.
- Potassium. Important for function involving the nervous system and muscles. Sources: bananas, avocados, sweet potato, dairy, and fish, among others.
- Calcium. Crucial for skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, to include the heart, blood vessels and intestines. Among the popular sources: dairy, sardines, anchovies, dark and leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and fortified tofu.
- Magnesium. Used by our muscles for contraction and relaxation, Sources: legumes, mackerel, whole grains, dark chocolate, dried fruit, and natural yogurt.