Cramp is one of those uncomfortable experiences we’re all familiar with. Whether it’s the sudden strike of a cramping pain in your feet or toes when you’re trying to relax, or a leg cramp as you enter the final stretch of your run, the pain is sudden and debilitating. Fortunately it can clear just as quickly, and leave you ready to continue, but better is avoiding it altogether. Today we look at the causes, treatments and preventions of muscle cramp.
What is Cramp?
We might be familiar with the painful sensation of a leg cramp, but what causes that pain? A cramp is the involuntary contraction of a muscle. Sometimes it’s a momentary twinge, as the muscle twitches and then returns to rest, but sometimes it seizes in the tight, contracted state, leading to a lasting pain until you can convince the muscle to relax.
One of the main causes of cramp, especially among inexperienced gym users is over-exertion. If you’re too eager to ‘push through the wall’ you might ignore your body’s warning signs that you’re pushing it too far. Overstressed muscles seize up, first for short periods and then, if you ignore the warning signs for longer.
If you’re regularly experiencing cramps after your workout, particularly in the muscle groups you’re pushing, you may need to lower the intensity of your routine a little, and look to build up your stamina before raising the pace again.
If you find this happening consistently, you might want to find a personal trainer. Devising a routine that develops your strength without overstressing your body is not an easy task, and regular post-workout cramping could be a sign that you need some expert help to get the balance right.
You can also avoid muscles cramping and seizing in the post-workout period by ensuring you cool down correctly. Stretching to relieve the built-up tension in the muscle groups you’ve been working relaxes them, and a warm shower afterwards encourages blood flow to your skin and muscles, to lower the risk of an unpleasant and painful cramp.
Electrolytes are an important resource that your body needs to function. This umbrella term covers a collection of around seven water-soluble salts that are so-acalled because when they are dissolved in water they can conduct an electric charge. Your body uses them for lots of different functions: maintaining the correct balance of fluid in your cells is one of the important ones, and among the others are making sure your nerves transmit impulses to your muscles correctly.
If your electrolyte levels dip, these processes start to work less efficiently, and you’ll begin to experience discomfort. You might get a headache, feel dizzy or start to experience muscle cramps!
Whether it’s because the weather is hotter than you’re comfortable with, you’re running a fever or you’re training in the gym, anything that makes you work up a sweat also runs down your electrolyte levels. Because these minerals are stored in your body’s reserve of water, they’re liable to loss under any of the conditions that would also dehydrate you, and that means that when you’re rehydrating you also need to be thinking about your electrolyte levels if you want to avoid cramps.
Simply drinking water can actually make the situation worse – if your electrolyte levels are low already and you drink a pint of water without also topping them up in your diet, you’re simply diluting what remains by one pint! This means that you’re making yourself more prone to muscle cramps, headaches and worse if you drink lots of water to cool off on a hot day.
Sports rehydration drinks, often marketed as ‘Isotonic drinks’ can avoid this problem, by restoring your electrolyte levels as they hydrate you, but they’re far from a perfect solution. They often contain large quantities to sugar, to provide an instant, if less than healthy, spike of energy. If you’re trying to avoid sugar, sports drinks are not a great way to rehydrate.
ORS hydration tablets offer a better solution. Formulated according to the World Health Authority’s standards for rehydration, these tablets dissolve quickly in water to create a tasty, and crucially low-calorie, drink that rehydrates you and restocks your supply of important electrolytes, meaning you’re not at risk of cramps or any other unpleasant side effects of electrolyte loss however testing your marathon training, or long the heatwave.
Unfortunately, as you age, cramp is one of the things that becomes more common. Ageing has many effects that make cramp more likely, from the constriction of blood vessels to increased pressure on the spinal column.
Spinal nerve compression is known as lumbar stenosis and is caused by the narrowing of the spinal canal. It’s mostly an effect of the ageing process, causing your nerves to fire less reliably, and trigger painful and unwanted muscle contractions, a.k.a cramps.
It’s a natural side effect of the ageing process and while it’s uncomfortable, it need not have a dramatic impact on your life. Talking to a specialist will help you with posture exercises and stretches that reduce the likelihood and intensity of cramping and make sure you can get on with enjoying your life!
When Cramp Strikes
If you are affected by cramp, then try to gently keep the muscle moving – if it happens to you while you exercise, try to resist the temptation to come to a complete halt. This could cause other muscles to seize up, and make things worse. Dropping the intensity while maintaining movement helps the muscle to relax and the pain to pass. Massaging the affected area can have the same effect.
If you want to avoid cramps then there are simple things you can do to make sure you’re minimising the chance you’ll suffer:
- Stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes topped up, to ensure your body is functioning at its best.
- Make sure you warm up before exercise and warm down after, avoiding unnecessary stress on your muscles.
- Regular light movements, like stretching or walks around the office keeps your body active and less prone to pains like cramp.