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Muscle Cramps — Ouch!

By Shea Cooper, Physical Therapist

It is safe to say that most of us have been awakened in the middle of the night with a painful muscle cramp or “charley horse.” Not only do they interrupt our beauty sleep, they can be very painful and intense! 

So, what are these muscle cramps, and why do we get them? Better yet, how can we treat and prevent them?

  When a muscle that is normally under our voluntary control contracts involuntarily, it is called a “muscle spasm.” If the spasm is forceful and lasts more than a few seconds, it is called a “muscle cramp.” (In fact, some muscle cramps can last 15 minutes or longer.) We can get cramps in any of our skeletal muscles, but they are more common in the muscles of the legs and feet — especially the calf. People of all ages are susceptible to muscle cramps — even children, but they tend to become more common as we get older.

  Muscle cramps are commonly associated with vigorous activities, like sports, or with repetitive activities, such as yard work or household chores. This is because these types of activities can lead to excessive fluid loss from perspiration. And, the risk for cramping becomes higher when these activities are performed in warm weather. 

So, what about those dreaded “charley horses” that strike without warning in the middle of the night? Muscle cramps have several other possible causes, including poor fluid intake; some medications; low levels of calcium, magnesium and potassium; and vitamin deficiencies. The best way to treat a cramping muscle is by stretching it. Because most cramps occur in leg muscles, this can be achieved by simply standing up and walking. 

They also can be treated by applying warmth to the cramping muscles using either a heating pad or a warm bath. Gentle massage of the affected muscle is also an effective treatment for muscle cramping. And, if the cramps are associated with sports or other activities, then fluid replacement is necessary. If these simple treatments do not help, and your cramps become more frequent and severe, you should consult your physician.

Sometimes, muscle cramps can be prevented. When participating in sports or vigorous activities, adequate hydration, or intake of fluids, before, during and after the activity is very important in the prevention of muscle cramps. Two other ways to prevent muscle cramps is to avoid excessive fatigue by taking frequent rest breaks with activity and by stretching and performing an adequate warm-up and cool-down. In fact, a regular stretching program can be beneficial in preventing those painful night cramps, too.