All About Muscle Cramps
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Orthopedics

All About Muscle Cramps

Most people know the pain of a muscle cramp or "charley horse."  Muscle cramps are involuntary muscle contractions. They are common. But even though they can be quite painful, they don't usually cause damage.

Any muscle can cramp, but the muscles of the calf, back of the thigh, and front of the thigh are most often affected. Cramps are also common in the feet, hands, arms, and belly (abdomen), and along the rib cage.

A muscle cramp can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer. The cramp may happen several times before it goes away.

Causes

Doctor's don't know the exact cause of muscle cramps. They usually occur after muscle tiredness (fatigue), dehydration, or heavy exercise. Simply staying in the same position for a long time may help cause a cramp. Prevent these problems and you can prevent muscle cramps--usually. Cramps affect almost everyone at some time in life.

These are other common causes of muscle cramps:

  • Pregnancy

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Abnormalities of the metabolism

  • Alcoholism

  • Kidney failure

  • Certain medicines

Prevention

Warming up and stretching before a workout may help prevent cramping. Make gradual changes in the type and intensity of exercise to keep muscle fatigue and potential cramps at a minimum. Being in good physical condition also helps keep the cramps away.

Older adults are more likely to get muscle cramps because of normal muscle loss that comes with aging.

You may be able to prevent some cramps by drinking plenty of fluids and getting enough food and beverages that contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are the minerals potassium, sodium, and chloride that let the body's cells exchange fluids correctly. A balanced diet should provide plenty of electrolytes. See your healthcare provider if your cramps are severe, you have them often, they continue, or they don't respond to simple treatments. You may have a more serious problem.

When cramps strike

Try gently stretching the muscle and hold the stretch. Massaging may help. Apply pressure and gently stretch the muscle. If the cramp strikes at night, run a hand towel under hot water and wrap it tightly around the cramped muscle. Within about a minute the muscle will relax and the knot will disappear.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kenny Turley PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Thomas N Joseph MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
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