What actually causes muscle cramps?

Most of us have been there. We’ve hit a good stride during a race or an event, and then all of a sudden, the cramp hits. For some, it’s not even while they are exerting themselves. They suddenly have an involuntary and painful contraction in their leg, back, or another part of their body.

Did you know that muscle cramps are far more common than what you may think? In fact, they affect between 40 and 95 percent of athletes at some point.

In this article, we take a look at exactly what a muscle cramp is, what causes them, and what the potential remedies are.

What exactly is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is an involuntary and often painful contraction of a muscle. It can happen in any muscle group but is most common in the legs. Cramps, which can at times last a few minutes (or most usually a few seconds) are often accompanied by knotting within the muscle.

There’s a good chance you’ve felt this in your calf muscle at some point in your life. That is one of the more popular locations for cramps, which usually occur in the area of your body directly involved in the exercise that you may be doing.

Did you know that the common term for a muscle cramp is ‘exercise-associated muscle cramp’, or is EAMC? This term is important as it distinguishes such cramps from other muscle cramp causes.

What causes muscle cramps?

The jury is still out on what the actual causes of muscle cramps are. There are several theories, but no one definitive answer. The most common theory is that they are caused by dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. This theory postulates that when you sweat during exercise, you lose important electrolytes like sodium and potassium. This can lead to an imbalance which in turn causes cramping.

There is some evidence to support this theory, but not all cases of EAMC can be attributed to dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. Another theory suggests that cramps are caused by fatigue. When muscles are tired, they are more likely to contract involuntarily. This could explain why cramps often happen towards the end of a race or event when your muscles are at their most fatigued state.

There is also evidence to suggest that cramps could be caused by overuse or repetitive use of the same muscle group. This is often seen in sports where there is a lot of repetition, like running, tennis, or swimming.

Finally, it has been suggested that cramps could be due to muscle damage. When muscles are damaged, they are more likely to contract involuntarily. This theory could explain why cramps sometimes happen after an intense workout or race.

So, what can you do to avoid muscle cramps?

There are several things you can do to try and prevent muscle cramps. Let’s run through a few of them.

Make sure you refuel

If dehydration or electrolyte imbalance is the cause of muscle cramps, then it stands to reason that you should make sure you are well hydrated and have adequate levels of electrolytes. The best way to do this is to refuel during and after exercise.

During exercise, aim to drink small amounts of fluids regularly. This will help keep you hydrated and top up your electrolyte levels. After exercise, make sure you rehydrate with fluids like water or sports drinks. You can also eat foods that are high in electrolytes like bananas or salty snacks.

Warm up properly

Warming up helps prepare your body for exercise by increasing blood flow to your muscles and making them more flexible. This can help reduce the risk of muscle cramps. So, make sure you warm up properly before any exercise or race.

Stretch to avoid muscle cramps

Stretching helps improve flexibility and can help reduce the risk of muscle cramps. Try to stretch regularly, especially if you are participating in a repetitive sport like running or swimming.

Slow down if you feel a muscle cramp coming on

If you feel a muscle cramp coming on, the best thing to do is to slow down and stop exercising. This will help relieve the tension in your muscles and may help prevent the cramp from developing further.

Apply heat or cold to the affected area

Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help relieve muscle pain and spasms. Try using a heat pack or taking a warm bath to relax your muscles. If you are experiencing cramps at night, try putting a pillow between your legs to apply pressure and relieve tension.

Conditioning

Conditioning your muscles can help make them stronger and less prone to cramping. This means doing regular resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Conditioning your muscles will take time, so be patient and consistent with your workouts. It’s important to note that athletes who are well trained and suitably conditioned, experience far fewer cramps than those who are not.

Consider endurance training

In line with our comments above on conditioning, endurance training can be a great way to reduce the risk of EAMC. It does so by expanding the extracellular fluid compartment and plasma volume while delaying neuromuscular fatigue.

Get more sodium in to prevent cramping

Sodium, or salt, is essential for muscle function. It helps to regulate fluid levels in the body and is needed for nerve impulses. Low sodium levels can lead to cramping, so it’s important to make sure you are getting enough in your diet. The recommended daily intake of sodium is 2,300mg, but you may need more if you are training harder than usual. Speak to your doctor about what the best amount is for you though.

Have you tried pickle juice?

Research has shown that drinking pickle juice can help reduce muscle cramps. Okay, you’re probably thinking that this is a lot of rubbish and yet another urban legend. The truth is that there is evidence of products containing TRP (we’ll explain what this is in a bit) reducing cramps in athletes. TRP, or transient receptor potential, connects the mouth to the central nervous system. The claims are that by stimulating these receptors, they somehow cause a ‘jolting’ reaction down the nerves, disrupting the signals that may be causing the cramps. Pickle juice contains acetic acid which apparently stimulates TRP receptors, which is why so many believe it is effective in stopping cramps.

Have you tried CrampFix®?

CrampFix® is a cramp shot that was developed to provide almost instant relief by treating the overactive nerves that are causing muscles to cramp up.

It has fast become the first-choice product for not only athletes who need cramp relief, but also those who may be older and suffering from chronic illnesses that require relief from the rapid onset of cramping.

If you are looking for a fast and effective way of stopping your cramps in their tracks, try CrampFix®. Find out more here.

Get rapid cramp relief with CrampFix®.