So I was lying in bed the other night, minding my own business, and I suddenly got this stabbing pain in my calf. It was as if the muscle had just locked up and was radiating pain. Naturally, being a bit of a wuss, I yelled and jumped out of bed, or at least got out as quickly as my spasming leg would permit. Then I hopped around a bit until the cramp had passed.
Now, I’ve had cramps before. In fact I’m guessing pretty nearly everyone has at some point or another in their lives had one. But this came on so suddenly, and so painfully, that it got me wondering what causes cramps and how you can prevent them. And thanks to the power of the world wide interwebby thing, the answer was easy to find. We don’t know. No, really, it’s true. We don’t really know what causes them. But we do have a few ideas. In fact according to the website, wrongdiagnosis.com (a really rather unfortunate title for a medical site!) there are 114 possible causes. Fortunately for most of us it’s one of just a few things.
Cramps, at least according to our chums at the Mayo Clinic, are caused when a muscle is overused, dehydrated, injured, strained or just held in one position for a very long time. Oh, it might also be due to an inadequate blood supply to your leg, nerve damage, or a lack of calcium, magnesium or potassium in your diet. Well, that certainly narrows it down doesn’t it!
The good news is that for most of us it really is just a sign of muscle overuse or strain or injury, or dehydration so it is easily remedied. In a few cases, if you are having cramps a lot, and they’re getting really disruptive, you should probably see a doctor. It might be nothing serious but you might need help adjusting your diet so you get enough essential minerals. In really serious cases they can give you medication to help relax your muscles, but obviously it’s much better if you can find a non-drug solution.
If it’s just a matter of overuse you can simply rest or find another activity that doesn’t stress that particular muscle quite so much. For instance if you run a lot you might try alternating running with swimming; you still get your exercise but are not pounding your legs into the pavement every day.
Athletes often get a cramp early in their workout, when the muscles are being stressed before they are fully ready for it. So one way to avoid that is to warm-up before you jump into the most active phase of your workout. Oh, and stretch out afterwards. That can really help as well.
If you are just not getting enough water that’s even easier. Drink more. How much more depends on how active you are, the weather where you live etc. The fluid helps your muscles contract and relax and not cramp up. Of course if you are drinking more water you are more likely to be getting in and out of bed to go to the bathroom all night and that extra activity could strain the leg which could lead to another cramp. But that’s a chance you’ll have to take.