If you're sleeping or are in the middle of a tough workout when a muscle cramp strikes, you know how painful and debilitating it can be. The painful, involuntary contraction of the muscle comes suddenly and without warning, leaving you to deal with the aftermath.
Muscle cramps are common and usually harmless, but they can wreck your day — or night — quickly. Find out more about muscle cramps, their causes, and what you can do to prevent them.
The Link Between Dehydration, Electrolyte Imbalance and Muscle Cramps
Overview of Muscle Cramps
A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of the muscle. Also known as a "charley horse," a muscle cramp can be extremely painful and may occur after exercise, during sleep, or at other inconvenient times. Muscle cramps can last from a few seconds to upward of 15 minutes. It's also likely that the same muscle will cramp several times until it resolves.
When we use the muscles that are controlled voluntarily, such as the skeletal muscles, they contract and relax for movement. The muscles of the core, neck, and head all contract and relax simultaneously to maintain posture. If an entire muscle, or a few muscle fibers, involuntarily contracts, it's known as a "spasm." If the spasm is forced and prolonged, it becomes a muscle cramp.
Muscle cramps are common after prolonged exercise or labor, especially in hot weather, and may be brought on by certain medical conditions or medications. While muscle cramps are generally harmless, they often restrict the use of the affected muscles and are incredibly painful. Fortunately, muscle cramps are usually treated successfully with self-care, and they can be prevented.
Types of Muscle Cramps
Skeletal muscle cramps have several types, all with different causes and affected muscle groups - let's dive in a little deeper.
True Muscle Cramps
True muscle cramps typically involve a single muscle or group of muscles that contract and relax together for movement, such as the leg muscles. Experts agree that true muscle cramps are caused by the nerves that stimulate the muscles. These are the most common leg cramps in kids.
True muscle cramps occur during:
- Strenuous Activity or Injury: True muscle cramps are often associated with the use of muscles in sports or physical activities. They often occur during the activity, though they may come on later. Muscle spasms may also occur to protect an injury and stabilize the area, such as with a broken bone.
- Rest and Dehydration Cramps: Rest cramps are common in older individuals, but they can affect any age group. Rest muscle cramps occur at night and usually recur. The cause is unknown, but they may be brought on from movements that shorten muscles during sleep, such as pointing the toes. These cramps can be disturbing to sleep patterns. Dehydration cramps occur from sports and physical activities that result in excessive fluid loss from sweating and hot weather. Excessive depletion of bodily fluids, combined with low fluid intake, rids the body of necessary electrolytes and water.
- Water Balance and Electrolyte Cramps: Cramps may be caused by conditions that lead to an unusual water balance in the body, such as liver disease and ascites or kidney failure and dialysis. Low electrolytes, particularly magnesium and calcium, affect the excitability of the nerves and the corresponding muscles. Imbalance of these electrolytes is common in pregnant women. It can also be caused by diuretic abuse, hyperventilation, vomiting, diarrhea, and inadequate dietary sources, such as a Vitamin D deficiency.
With tetany, all of the nerve cells in the body are activated at once, stimulating the muscles. This causes spasms and cramping throughout the muscle groups. Tetany can be caused by low blood calcium or magnesium. This type of cramping may also cause a sensation of tingling or numbness in specific areas.
Dystonic cramps involve the stimulation of muscle groups that aren't necessary for a particular motion, or the opposing muscles of the muscle needed for movement. Some examples include the small groups of muscles that work in opposition such as the muscles of the jaws for chewing. Repetitive activities, such as writing or playing musical instruments, can cause dystonic cramps in the specific muscle groups.
Causes of Muscle Cramps
The most common causes of muscle cramps include dehydration, muscle strain, overuse, and extended periods of exercise.
Muscle cramps may also be caused by certain medical conditions, including:
- Poor Circulation: Arteriosclerosis, or the narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the leg muscles, can result in pain that's similar to muscle cramps. In most cases, the cramps resolve after exercise or strenuous activity ends.
- Nerve Compression: Lumbar stenosis, or the compression of nerves in your spine, can sensations similar to leg cramps. The pain typically worsens with exercise.
- Mineral Depletion: An imbalance of electrolytes, such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium can lead to muscle cramps. Overhydration or the use of diuretics can deplete the electrolytes in your system and lead to an imbalance.
Certain factors may increase the likelihood of developing muscle cramps, including pregnancy, age, dehydration, and medical conditions like diabetes, thyroid disorders, and liver disease.
Symptoms of Muscle Cramps
Leg muscles, particularly the calves, are most susceptible to muscle cramps. The symptoms include a sudden, sharp pain and a hard lump of muscle tissue at the affected site.
Muscle cramps usually resolve on their own, but there are some cases that require medical attention. These include:
- Severe pain
- Corresponding swelling, redness, or skin abnormalities
- Muscle weakness
- Frequent cramping
- No improvement with self-treatment
- No obvious cause
Treating Muscle Cramps
Most muscle cramps resolve on their own, but you can speed up the process with a few self-care measures, including:
- Replenishing lost fluids and electrolytes
- Gently stretching the affected muscles
- Relaxing in a warm bath or shower
- Gently massaging the affected muscles
- Applying an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling
- Resting the affected areas
Preventing Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps have a variety of causes and risk factors, but with proper preparation and planning, you can give yourself a fighting chance against this uncomfortable condition.
Whether you're planning a long-distance run, a vigorous hike, a quick workout, or a good night's rest, stretching is a great way to warm up your muscles and prevent cramping. Before any exercise, it's important to do a warm-up stretch and a cool-down stretch to keep the muscles limber. If you experience nocturnal leg cramps, try light, easy stretching before bed or a half-hour of yoga for loose muscles.
Fluid intake is necessary for the contraction and relaxation of muscles, healthy muscle cells, and a variety of other functions within the body. For exercise, water is necessary to maintain adequate blood volume, which helps your muscles get the oxygen they need to function optimally. Sip water throughout the day, and if you're planning labor or exercise, be sure to hydrate before, during, and after so you can replenish what you've lost through sweat. In hot-weather workouts, it's even more important to replenish fluids because you'll be losing more due to sweating and an elevated body temperature.
How much water should you drink? Everyone's water needs vary, but you can monitor your hydration levels in a number of ways:
- Pay Attention to Thirst Triggers: If you're thirsty, you're already mildly dehydrated.
- Excessive Sweating: Excessive sweating through strenuous workouts or workouts in hot weather means you're losing fluids. Drink more to compensate for the fluid losses.
- Monitor Urine Concentration: Dark, concentrated urine is a sign of dehydration. Pale, yellow urine is a sign of optimal hydration levels. If your urine is nearly clear and of high volume, however, it's a sign that you need to replenish electrolytes.
Electrolytes are important minerals that are used for various functions within the body, such as maintaining water balance, regulating blood chemistry, and controlling muscle action. Common electrolytes include sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
When the electrolytes in your body are too high or too low, you can develop unpleasant symptoms like mental confusion, dizziness, irregular heart rhythm, and muscle cramps. While there are many potential causes of electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, such as through fluid loss, is most common.
Unfortunately, just replacing lost fluids isn't enough to replenish electrolytes and prevent cramping. If you lose a lot of water through sweat during a tough workout, drinking more water will only flush out more electrolytes. They're both parts of the equation, so you need to take in lost electrolytes as well as fluids to restore balance in the body.
It's best to eat electrolyte-rich foods that help with muscle cramps and drink fluids infused with electrolytes, particularly sodium, potassium, and chloride. Also, athletes engaging in vigorous physical activities in hot environments may benefit from carbohydrates, which provide energy to fuel muscles.
Stop Muscle Cramps in Their Tracks With Buoy
If you're worried about muscle cramps putting an end to your workout or disrupting a night of rest, add Buoy to your cramp-prevention routine. The liquid, squeezable hydration boost is the perfect way to replenish chloride, potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium via all-natural hand-harvested sea salt. Just squeeze their proprietary and formula of electrolytes, B Vitamins, and antioxidants into your water, workout beverage, or favorite before-bed drink to give your body what it needs to stave off unpleasant muscle cramps.
Start squeezing Buoy into your favorite drinks throughout the day for optimal hydration!
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- Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis. (2018, April 24). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arteriosclerosis-atherosclerosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350569
- Spinal stenosis. (2018, March 08). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-stenosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352961
- Muscle cramp. (2019, January 03). Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/syc-20350820
- Lau, W., Kato, H., & Nosaka, K. (2019, March 5). Water intake after dehydration makes muscles more susceptible to cramp but electrolytes reverse that effect. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6407543/
- Jung, A., Bishop, P., Al-Nawwas, A., & Dale, R. (2005, June). Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1150229/
- National Institute for Youth Sports & Health at Sanford. (n.d.). Muscle Cramps during Exercise-Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte... : Current Sports Medicine Reports. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/fulltext/2008/07001/muscle_cramps_during_exercise_is_it_fatigue_or.9.aspx