What You Need to Know About Muscle Cramps

Most people have experienced a muscle cramp. Maybe you woke in the night to a tight calf muscle that felt extremely painful or perhaps you were out jogging and suddenly your foot muscle contracted and you couldn’t take another step until the pain subsided. Also called charley horses, muscle cramps are usually harmless but can be quite painful.

Most often affecting your calf or foot muscles, muscle cramps can also be felt in your thighs, arms, abdomen, ribs, or hands. Wonder what causes these unpleasant cramps and what you can do to treat and prevent them? You’re about to find out.

Why’s My Muscle So Tight?

Muscle cramps are the result of muscle spasms (contractions you can’t control) that come out of nowhere, whether you’re resting or exercising. Your muscle becomes tight, hard, and painful. If you’re elderly or pregnant, you’re more likely to get muscle cramps.

There are a number of different causes for muscle cramps so it may be hard to know the exact reason. They may be due to strenuous exercise of the calf muscle, working out without a proper warm-up, or exercising in hot weather. Some people get muscle cramps because they’re dehydrated or deficient in potassium, magnesium, or calcium.

Muscle spasms can also be the result of an underlying medical condition such as poor circulation in your legs, a spinal cord injury, or a pinched nerve. Unfortunately, some medications come with the side effect of muscle cramps. These include certain drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, asthma, osteoporosis, cholesterol, and Parkinson’s disease.

Relieve the Pain

As much as it may hurt, you’re not dying—your muscle’s just tight. There are simple ways to ease the pain. It might just take a few minutes. You can try gently rubbing or massaging the muscle, stretching it, warming it with a hot bath or heating pad, or placing ice on the tight area.

When your calf tightens up, stretch it by standing on your leg and slowly bending the knee. If you’re lying down, flex your toes upward. For a cramp in your hamstring (the muscle on the back of your thigh), lie down, straighten your leg, and raise it up toward your head. A muscle cramp in your quadriceps (the muscle on the front of your thigh) can be relieved by standing on your unaffected leg and pulling the foot of your hurt leg toward your bottom.

Prevent Future Cramps

When muscle cramps become frequent, you can help prevent the likelihood of them returning by taking simple measures. First, drink plenty of water during the day—while you exercise and after. Keeping your body hydrated helps your muscles contract and relax. Second, spend a few minutes warming up your muscles with light exercises before working out. Third, eat a healthy diet that includes adequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Muscle cramps can be painful and annoying, but they’re rarely dangerous. If you wonder whether you should make an appointment to see your doctor, it’s a good idea to do so if you get muscle cramps frequently; your cramps cause extreme pain or come with muscle weakness, swelling, or redness; or they don’t subside after taking appropriate self-care measures.

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