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Muscle Cramps in Athletes

Posted Feb 14 2014 10:08pm

Muscle cramps are defined as an involuntary contraction of a muscle. These can last anywhere from a few seconds, all the way up to several minutes. Cramping is associated with the hyper-excitability, or hyperactivity of the nerve endings within muscle tissue.

Muscle Cramp


Many people experience cramps when they sleep, which can be associated with excruciating pain. Athletes, on the other hand, tend to develop muscle cramps when they are exercising. An occasional, minor cramp here and there is probably inevitable, but for the most part, muscle cramps can be prevented with proper care and attention to a few details:


Dehydration - Can occur in athletes when exercising in hot and humid conditions and not drinking sufficient liquid. A dehydrated muscle is very prone to muscle cramps. Many athletes who think they drink enough water do not drink enough water. Drink more water! Hint: if urine is dark yellow or you’ve lost pounds in a day, you’re most likely dehydrated.

Overheating - Dehydration will cause the body/muscle tissues to overheat much more rapidly. This dehydration/overheating combination is another factor in causing muscle cramps. When active in high temperatures, make sure to stay hydrated.

Water 'Intoxication' - Excessive intake of water and sweating can ‘wash’ electrolytes (minerals) out of your body and lead to cramps. It happens when electrolyte levels, primarily sodium, are dangerously low in the body. Drink water, but don’t forget to replace your electrolytes.

Water retention - Sodium and the other electrolytes are essential for retaining water in the bodily tissues, including muscle. If you are deficient in these minerals, you may remain dehydrated & at risk for cramps, no matter how much water you drink.

Mineral deficiency - There are four minerals that can influence how a muscle contracts, namely calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. 

  • Calcium: Calcium is essential for the normal contraction of muscle tissues, including those of the heart. Those with extremely low blood calcium levels can develop muscle cramps or a condition called tetani where the muscles fibres contract continuously. When this occurs, heart failure can ensue. Good sources of absorbable calcium include raw nuts and seeds (almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds), leafy greens, seaweed (kelp, seamoss, nori, etc.), broccoli, coconut water, asparagus, dairy, sardines, salmon, raisins, figs, dried herbs (basil, thyme, dill, oregano, cinnamon), dried fruit, blackstrap molasses, dried beans and legumes. Know that vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so it is indirectly related to muscle cramps.
  • Magnesium: People eating a nutrient deficient diet that lacks fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, may well have inadequate intakes of magnesium. If you suffer from muscle cramps, you can try increasing your intake of leafy greens such as spinach, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, pumpkin, coconut water, raw nuts and seeds, fish, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, and dried beans and legumes or take a calcium and magnesium supplement (taking these two minerals together improves their mutual absorption).
  • Potassium: Eating an unbalanced diet of processed and refined foods can cause a potassium deficiency. Drinking too much water can also deplete your potassium reserves. The easiest way of ensuring that you have abundant potassium is to eat five or more servings of fruit and/or vegetables a day. If you have a juicer, make an apple or grape and carrot drink to boost your potassium intake. Good sources of potassium include coconut water, sweet potatoes and other ground provisions (with skin), bananas, carrots, fish, beets and beet greens, squash. Potassium supplements should preferably only be taken if your potassium levels have been checked and found to be low.
  • Sodium: Drinking too much water, sweating a lot, and certain imbalances in kidney function can lead to sodium depletion, which in turn can cause cramps. If you do a lot of exercise in hot and humid weather you need to make sure that you are getting adequate sodium in your diet. It is wise to make the switch from refined, chemical filled “table salt” to a good quality sea salt (slightly grey) or Himalayan salt (pink), as these also contain healthy trace minerals, and are cleaner sources. Coconut water is also a great source of balanced electrolytes. So is Himalayan crystal salt (the pink one). 

Vitamin D – Essential for the absorption of calcium. Without sufficient vitamin D, much/most of the dietary calcium goes to waste. Vitamin D also plays a role in magnesium absorption, and probably plays a role in the absorption of other mineral as well, to a smaller degree. Some good sources of vitamin D include exposure to sunlight, free-range eggs, sardines & salmon, dried beans and legumes and raw nuts & seeds.

Essential Oils - Massage the cramping area with essential oils such as lavender or chamomile. Add one drop of each or two drops of a single oil to 1tsp (5ml) of any carrier oil. Lavender is pain-relieving, and chamomile helps to reduce spasm and inflammation.

Homeopathy - Arnica cream rubbed gently over the affected area may help if you have intense cramps that leave a bruised sensation in your muscles.

Herbal Remedies - Herbs that may help with painful muscle cramps:

  • Apple Cider – Take two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar dissolved in a teaspoon of honey. It contains acetic acid (vinegar) which helps the body make acetylcholine-claimed to relax muscles
  • Cramp bark - A native remedy for muscle cramps. Note: Cramp bark can have side effects such as nausea or diarrhea if taken in quite large doses. It should not be taken by pregnant women.
  • Chamomile – Drink 3-5 cups of tea daily to relax and help decrease muscle cramps.
Restricted Circulation - Restricted blood flow to a working muscle can cause muscle cramping. While it is probably not nearly as common as water & nutrient deficiencies, it is still important to be aware of the possibility. Tight clothing or bands during an activity or in bed could potentially restrict blood flow to a certain degree, which could or could not be enough to trigger cramping. Wear comfortable, loosely fitting clothes at all times, as constriction of the blood supply to muscles can cause them to contract painfully.

Massage/Hot and Cold - When a muscle is cramping, circulation may be restricted to that area. Vigorously massaging and kneading the affected muscle will help to boost circulation to the area. The application of a heating balm can help to increase blood flow. 
One of the best ways to quickly boost circulation is with the use of alternating hot (warm water or hot pack) and cold (ice) applications. Apply the cold application tightly for 10-15 seconds, then alternate with the hot application for 10-15 seconds. Repeat until you notice relief. Hot packs are often not available during sports events, so do not count on being able to use this method. Soaking the cramping area in a warm Epson salt or sea salt bath will sooth it and help replenish electrolytes to the area. 

Lack of fitness - Well-trained muscles are less likely to cramp. Although this mainly applies to athletes, people who are not fit and get little exercise often develop cramps because their muscles are so poorly used.

Stretching and Increased Flexibility - Stretching a cramped muscle out can help to temporarily relieve a muscle cramps. Use a slow, sustained stretch, rather than quick and forceful ones. In some events, where resources and time are limited, stretching may be the only thing you are able to do. A muscle that is overly tight can also be a factor in causing muscle cramps. When flexibility is not sufficient for the activity being performed, and it is interfering with the desired movements, then it becomes a factor in causing cramping.

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