Muscle cramps

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary and forced contraction of the muscle which does not relax. Cramps can occur in any of the voluntary muscles of the body. It is more common in the muscles which hold any two joints. Almost everyone of you may experience muscle cramps at some point in your lives.

The most commonly affected muscles are:

  • Back of the lower leg or calf muscles
  • Muscles in the front or the back of the thigh

The other muscles which are commonly affected include those of the arms, feet, abdomen, along the ribcage.

Cramps usually last for about few seconds to 15 minutes or longer. Also, it can recur for several times before it goes away completely.

  • Muscle cramps can lead to a slight pinching pain to an agonizing pain of the affected body part.
  • The cramped muscles can appear visibly distorted and feel hard to touch.
  • There can be a lump formation beneath the skin.

Muscle cramps are common in the overused or injured muscles.

  • If you strain your muscle during a dehydrated state or when your mineral levels (calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium) are low, then it can lead to the cramps of those muscles.
  • Decreased blood supply to the legs and feet can cause cramping in these areas while performing activities.
  • Nerve compression in your spine can also lead to cramps in your legs.

Playing games such as tennis, bowling, swimming, golf, etc. can also cause cramps.

Everyone will experience muscle cramps at some time in life. However, below factors can increase one’s chances of getting muscle cramps:

  • Age: Infants and young children, and people above 65 years of age are more prone to cramps
  • Athletes: Overexertion during work and exercise causes cramps usually after 4-6 hours of straining.
  • Medical conditions: Overweight, kidney failure, hypothyroidism
  • Certain medications
  • Pregnancy
  • Menstruation

Mild muscle cramps do not require doctor’s attention, but severe cramps need medical help. Your doctor will perform a physical examination and will ask you certain related questions to know the cause of the cramps.

Test typePurpose of the test
Blood test To check the levels of calcium and potassium, kidney functions and thyroid functioning
Electromyography To check the muscles for any abnormalities and their activity
Myelography Produces images of the spinal cord

Usually, cramps go away on their own without a doctor’s consultation. But, ifyour cramps do not go with simple stretching exercises, then your doctor may initially suggest you to take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen to relieve pain. It helps to stretch the sore muscles slowly.

  • If you have low levels of calcium and potassium, then you may be prescribed these supplements.
  • If your sleep is disturbed due to recurrent cramps, then you will be prescribed medicines to relax your muscles.

You may take the below steps to overcome the problem:

  • Stop doing the activities which trigger the cramps.
  • Gently massage and stretch the affected muscle. You may hold the muscle in the stretched position till the cramp stops.
  • If you have tense or tight muscles, you may apply heat. Applying ice is helpful for sore or tender muscles.
  • Drink plenty of fluids while exercising. Take fluids such as orange juice and bananas which are rich in potassium.