Have you ever been stretching in bed, and all of a sudden, a muscle just “grabs”? It really hurts, and it seems nothing gives you immediate relief, since touching the area hurts, too.

Or, have you been doing some rigorous activity, and then, boom? Your muscle is locked up tight, and you are at a stand-still until the muscle relaxes and the pain subsides.

If you say “yes” to either of these scenarios, you have experienced a muscle cramp, a very common condition.

A muscle cramp is basically a sustained muscle spasm—an involuntary and forcible contraction of a muscle that lasts from a few seconds to fifteen minutes or even longer. It is also not uncommon for a cramp to recur several times before it finally resolves.

Muscle cramps are very common in people of all ages, but particularly in children and as we age. The cramp may involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle, or several muscles that usually act together.

Cramps of the limbs, especially the legs and feet, and most particularly the calf (the classic “charley horse”), are most common. Severe cramps may be associated with soreness and swelling, which can occasionally persist up to several days after the cramp has subsided.

While you may know what a muscle cramp feels like, do you know there are different types of cramps? and ways to minimize the cramping?

Vigorous Activity: True cramps are commonly associated with the vigorous use of muscles and muscle fatigue, especially in sports or with activities to which the body is not accustomed).

Such cramps may come during the activity or later, sometimes many hours later.

Likewise, muscle fatigue from sitting or lying for an extended period in an awkward position or any repetitive use can cause cramps. Older adults are at particular risk for cramps when performing vigorous or strenuous physical activities.

Rest cramps: Rest cramps often occur during the night. Night cramps (commonly known as nocturnal cramps) can be painful, disrupt sleep, and they can recur frequently (many times a night, and/or many nights each week).

The actual cause of night cramps is unknown. Sometimes, such cramps are initiated by making a movement that shortens the muscle. An example is pointing the toe down while lying in bed, which shortens the calf muscle.
Night cramps and other rest cramps can often be prevented by regular stretching exercises, particularly if done before going to bed.

Even the simple calf-stretching maneuver, if held for 10 to 15 seconds and repeated two or three times just before going to bed, can be a great help in preventing nocturnal cramps. The maneuver can be repeated each time you get up to go to the bathroom during the night and also once or twice during the day.

Dehydration: It is so important to keep the body hydrated for many reasons, but cramp prevention is another good reason. Drink water and plenty of water to stay healthy and prevent dehydration. This is especially important for older individuals.

Sports and other vigorous activities can cause excessive fluid loss from perspiration, even if you don’t feel as if you are sweating (especially during cold weather activities or even swimming).

This kind of dehydration increases the likelihood of true cramps. These cramps are more likely to occur in warm weather and can also be an early sign of heat stroke.
Taking diuretics, medicines that promote urination to prevent fluid retention, can cause dehydration as well. The frequent urination from these medications can also deplete the body’s sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium—minerals that also impact cramping.

Cramps that are induced by repetitive, non-vigorous activities can sometimes be prevented or minimized by careful attention to ergonomic factors. Consider wrist supports, avoiding high heels, adjusting chair position, activity breaks, and using comfortable positions and equipment while performing the activity.

Learn to avoid excessive tension while executing problem activities can help. Unfortunately, for tasks that are difficult to modify, such as playing a musical instrument, cramps may recur.

Most cramps can be stopped if the muscle can be stretched.

For many cramps of the feet and legs, this stretching can often be accomplished by standing up and walking around. Gently massaging the muscle will often help it to relax, as will applying warmth from a heating pad or hot soak.

If the cramp is associated with fluid loss, as is often the case with vigorous physical activity, fluid and electrolyte (especially sodium and potassium) replacement is essential, so look for a sports drink that is not loaded with sugar.

Receiving treatments from your massage therapist and chiropractor can also help reduce or eliminate the incidences of muscle cramps. Treatments help to enhance muscle function by supplying fresh nutrients for healing and performance, flushing accumulating metabolic wastes, and aligning the spine to reduce tension on its supporting muscles and other soft tissues.

Make your appointment now, so you can reduce the likelihood of cramps in this busy spring-summer season.

If cramps are persistent and resolving, even after trying these suggestions, it is important for you to see your medical doctor.

If you have any questions regarding muscle cramps please make an appointment to see us at our comox clinic or just drop in for a chat.

Sean Murphy, RMT
Dr. Rick Houlgrave