Tips for Dealing With Muscle Cramps

Your Health, Men's Health, Women's Health | 7 months ago

Tips for Dealing With Muscle Cramps

Most everyone has dealt with muscle cramps at some point or another. While muscle cramps are harmless, they’re often painful to endure. Here, Carmen Teague, MD, explains what causes these unexpected cramps and how to prevent them from interfering from day-to-day life.

No one enjoys muscle cramps. If you’ve ever been awakened in the night or stopped in your tracks by a sudden and unexpected muscle cramp, you know that these involuntary contractions can cause severe pain. “Muscle cramps are usually a spasm of either a whole muscle or a collection of muscle fibers – usually painful, usually sudden and severe,” says Carmen Teague, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Atrium Health.

Frequently affected muscles include those in your legs, abdominal wall and feet, with the most common being the calf muscle. The intense pain can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes. Sometimes the pain is so severe that the person affected is awakened from sleep and has a sore muscle for up to 24 hours.

What causes muscle cramps?

While the cause of a muscle cramp is often unknown, Dr. Teague says the most common occurrences have been reported in association with tired muscles during exercise, dehydration, magnesium deficiency during pregnancy, alcoholism, metabolic conditions, hypothyroidism and effects from certain medications.

Even your body’s positioning can lead to muscle cramps. “If you have tight covers at the bottom of the bed, you have your toes pointed down and that causes your muscle to contract,” says Dr. Teague.

Based on this list of reasons, it’s no surprise that muscle cramps are so common. Age can also play a role, and an estimated 40 percent of adults over the age of 50 complain of leg cramps. “We know that the risk of muscle cramps increases with age,” says Dr. Teague. “Older people don’t feel thirst as much so they’re probably not as hydrated, and older age also increases your chance of being on medications that can dehydrate you.” 

Stretch, stretch and stretch again

If you have a cramp, there are several at-home remedies to ease pain and discomfort. You can forcefully stretch the cramped muscle and gently massage it to help it relax. “Standing up and stretching the muscle will allow it to let go,” says Dr. Teague.

For a calf cramp, stand and put your weight on your cramped leg while bending the knee slightly. If you’re unable to stand, sit with your affected leg extended straight out in front of you, and try pulling the top of your foot toward you. Alternatively, you can take a hot shower or apply heat or ice to soothe tight muscles.

How to keep cramps from unexpectedly striking

“The preferred prevention is natural remedies,” says Dr. Teague. Not only is stretching a great way to treat cramps when they strike, developing a habit of routinely stretching an average of four times a day also helps to reduce cramps by keeping muscles loose.

Avoiding dehydration is another way to limit cramps as fluids help your muscles relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. As you hydrate, it becomes important to have sodium and electrolyte replacements to replenish the fluids lost. If you can’t seem to maintain proper hydration levels, it’s best to avoid caffeine, alcohol and other diuretics that may contribute to dehydration.

If natural remedies don’t prevent the pain, you can take vitamin supplements (B complex, E complex, magnesium or iron) as an alternative. If vitamins don’t work over time, taking antihistamines or calcium channel blockers have been shown to help those suffering from muscle cramps.

If all else fails and the cramps are interfering with your day-to-day life, try drinking about 6 ounces of tonic water before going to bed. Tonic water is the last resort as it contains quinine, which has been shown to be effective but is not regulated by the FDA due to serious cardiac side effects if consumed in large amounts. For this reason, drinking any tonic water is not recommended long-term or if you’re an elderly patient.

If the muscle cramps continue, contact your primary care physician at Atrium Health to discuss treatment options.