Leg cramps can be really painful; so what causes them?
We’ve all had them; your leg muscles (often the calf muscles) suddenly spasm and stiffen and you start leaping about in agony – much to the amusement of anyone who happens to be watching at the time! You might be in the middle of some exercise, you might be watching Tv, you might even be asleep in the middle of the night – leg cramps can happen pretty much any time but what causes them?
The cause of muscle cramps
Doctors are still undecided as to the exact cause but there are a number of commonly agreed theories, which include:
- Muscle fatigue;
- Depletion of salts in the body (electrolytic depletion);
- Poor muscle condition;
- Altered neuromuscular control
The last one in the list above is gaining support as the primary reason for muscle cramps and is caused by a breakdown in the muscle control system due to muscle fatigue. Think about when you’re really tired – do you start to lose hand/eye co-ordination or get clumsy? Well, that’s the same sort of thing but it’s the body’s automatic (neuro) control systems that are getting confused and giving contradictory signals to the muscles.
Dehydration is caused by too much water loss from the body and too little water intake. Although many people associate dehydration with sweating and exercise it can also be experienced by people with a sedentary lifestyle, especially if they consume diuretics (substances that cause the body to increase the output of urine) such as alcohol or coffee in large quantities. Some drugs also act as diuretics and taking them can lead to increased muscle cramps. Drugs given for medical conditions as wide ranging as Alzheimers, Parkinsons, osteporosis, angina and asthma have been reported to increase the likelihood of cramps due to their diuretic properties. Even anti-anxiety drugs (including Valium) have been blamed for increased cramps.
Depletion of the bodies natural salts (especially sodium and potassium) usually only occurs through sweating and their loss can be a contributing factor in cramps, especially in leg cramps for athletes. Isotonic drinks are designed to replace these salts and should be used by those undertaking strenuous, extended exercise.
Poor muscle condition is an obvious cause/effect situation – you don’t do too much exercise normally then you decide to get fit and overdo it, leading to sore muscles and cramps.
Are leg or muscle cramps indicative of an underlying medical condition?
Figures suggest that 95% of the population suffer from cramps at one time or another so generally speaking they are not indicative of a deeper health problem. However, if you suddenly start to suffer from multiple cramping then it might be advantageous to consult a doctor, especially if you can think of no other reasons why they might be occurring (eg you haven’t suddenly taken to vigorous exercise or significantly changed your diet).
How do we prevent cramps?
The most common advice given to athletes to prevent cramps is:
Build up your exercise regime slowly so that you avoid dehydration and muscle fatigue.
Drink regularly during exercise and when you get to the stage of exercising for more than 30 minutes at a time consider taking isotonic drinks.
Stretch and warm up before exercising.
The calf muscle is the one most prone to cramps so make sure you stretch it properly (stand up, take a long pace forward with one leg, then straighten the other out behind you, toes pointing forward; repeat for the other leg). You should also stretch your hamstrings (sit on the floor with one leg folded in, as when cross legged, and the other out straight in front of you. Keep the foot upright and lean forward to touch your toes with both hands. Repeat for the other leg).
What to do to if you do suffer from a cramp.
First of all stop the activity that caused it; not usually a problem as the cramp will invariably caused you to stop already
You should then stretch the muscle as much and for as long as possible (hold the pose even when the cramp dissipates otherwise it may quickly return). Once you are sure the spasm has finished slowly release the pressure and exercise the muscle.
If you have the benefit of having a sports masseur handy then take advantage of their skills as that will help to repair any damage more quickly thank if just left alone.
If you keep suffering from repeated cramps in particular muscles then avoid exercise until you feel properly fit again and then start with light exercise until you’re sure the muscles are ok. Muscle cramps are not usually indicative of a medical condition but if in any doubt speak to a doctor or sports therapist.