Dealing With Muscle Cramps
Virtually everyone experiences a muscle cramp at some point in time. They can be mild or extremely painful. Strictly speaking, a muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. This causes a palpable hardening of the involved muscle. Our immediate instinctual (and correct) reaction would be to try to massage and lengthen the cramped muscle by contracting the muscle that does the exact opposite action. For example if the cramp were in the calf muscle (as in the picture here) you would try to contract the muscle on the front of your lower leg (tibialis anterior). Another strategy is to “walk it off”. This is best done once the severe cramp has eased off a bit.
Causes of cramps can vary, but typically they happen in muscles that are already stressed due to overwork, underdevelopment, or because a small part of the cramped muscle is already in a state of spasm (called a myofascial trigger point, or knot). If you look up in the medical literature you will see the following causes also listed for muscle cramps; kidney failure, hypothyroidism, metabolic problems, medications, alcoholism, dehydration, heavy exercise, muscle fatigue, pregnancy, reduced levels of magnesium or calcium in the body. If your cramps are regular in occurrence, it is extremely prudent to contact your primary health care provider. You will want to rule out any underlying medical conditions, or any medication that you may be taking. Medications that can cause cramping include certain diuretics and some cholesterol lowering drugs. Cramps are sometimes noted in individuals during withdrawal from medications and substances that have sedative effects, including alcohol, barbiturates and anti-anxiety agents such as benzodiazepines. There are also a number of individual drugs used to treat various conditions that can cause cramps, so if you are experiencing muscle cramping while on medication, it is wise to speak to your pharmacist and doctor to rule this out as a cause of your cramps.
Once your doctor has ruled out any medication or underlying medical condition you usually can self-assess and then treat your muscle cramps accordingly. If you are experiencing cramps, one of the first things that you would want to do is to look at your hydration levels. Most of us need to drink more water, and this can be a quick and easy fix. As well, much of the readership of this magazine is in the age group where they should probably be taking a calcium-magnesium supplement to prevent osteoporosis. As is turns out, calcium is very important for many other body functions such as muscle contractions, so it is important that we maintain proper calcium levels through diet or supplements.
The remaining, and most common reasons for muscle cramps all involve muscles under stress. The stress is usually physical, but the body reaction is metabolic, which leads to the cramp. Cramps in the bottom of the foot are common because most of the muscles there atrophy due to use of footwear. We are no longer roaming the plains barefoot, but the muscles that allow us to do these activities are still present in our feet. We actually have four layers of muscles on the bottoms of our feet, but because we do not use most of these muscles, they are extremely weak and underdeveloped. Often when they are asked to perform a task, they complain and then a cramp ensues. There are exercises that you can perform and footwear that you can purchase that will help develop theses muscles, minimizing cramps. In fact any muscle that is underdeveloped or overworked will be prone to cramping; this is why you may experience cramps during or after exercise. Muscles that get little rest time are also prone to cramps. This typically happens due to poor posture and work habits that require certain muscles to work non-stop, with few rest cycles.
If you experience regular cramps and your doctor has ruled out any underlying condition, and you are properly hydrated, look at dietary factors that could be contributing. Vitamin E is reported to help minimize cramp occurrence. Likewise, vitamin B1, B5 & B6 deficiencies are believed to cause muscle cramps. As mentioned earlier consider taking a calcium-magnesium supplement if you are not already taking one. It is also wise to look at lifestyle and ergonomic factors. I hate to sound like a broken record, but movement is extremely important for our bodies on so many levels, and it is a great way to prevent muscle cramps. I often see muscle cramping in my clients and it typically happens in muscles that spend a lot of time in a contracted state with little rest time, like a bank teller’s legs or a truck driver’s right leg. Movement is the key here. A muscle that has to keep you in one stationary position has to work very hard, but when you are moving, some muscles are contracting while others are relaxing. As well, a muscle that is prone to cramping should also be stretched regularly. This will reduce its tendency to cramp. Massage is a very powerful tool for this condition. Self-massage will relax the muscle and the nervous system, helping the muscle to relax. It would also be wise to visit a massage therapist. Your therapist can get in and release myofascial trigger points that predispose the muscle to cramping. This will allow the whole muscle to be more relaxed, improving its overall health.
Finally if all else fails and none of the above strategies work, you could possibly be one of the few people who need pharmaceutical intervention. In this case see your doctor about medication for your situation. There are a few quinine-based drugs that help quite a bit with muscle cramping. Either way, there are solutions available for cramps. You do not need to live with them.