What Causes Muscle Cramps
The cause of muscle cramps is still not understood, but the theories and myths include:
- Electrolyte depletion
- Poor conditioning
- Muscle fatigue
- Doing a new activity
Where do these theories come from?
We lose fluid when we sweat that also contains electrolytes (salt, potassium, magnesium). This loss of fluid and electrolyte is seen as the cause of cramping because when these nutrients fall to certain levels, the incidence of muscle spasms increases. It has not been demonstrated by any research that this leads to full on cramping.
Makers of sports drinks would have us believe that this electrolyte imbalance is the definitive cause and vigorously promote this idea.
An aside: Beware of research studies funded by companies that want you to buy their stuff. Research they fund is four times more likely to turn up the results in favour of their product than independent studies
Athletes are more likely to get cramps in the preseason, near the end of (or the night after) intense or prolonged exercise, some feel that a lack of conditioning results in cramps.
According to a review of the literature conducted by Martin Schwellnus from the University of Cape Town, the evidence supporting both the "electrolyte depletion" and "dehydration" hypotheses as the cause of muscle cramps is not convincing. In his review, Schwellnus concludes that the "electrolyte depletion" and "dehydration" hypotheses do not offer plausible pathophysiological mechanisms with supporting scientific evidence that could adequately explain the clinical presentation and management of exercise-associated muscle cramping.
Researchers (Cape Town University) are finding more evidence that the "altered neuromuscular control" hypothesis is the principal pathophysiological mechanism that leads to exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC). Altered neuromuscular control is often related to muscle fatigue and results in a disruption of muscle coordination and control. The research is based on evidence from research studies in human models of muscle cramping, epidemiological studies in cramping athletes, and animal experimental data and concludes “that further evidence to support the "altered neuromuscular control" hypothesis is also required, research data are accumulating that support this as the principal pathophysiological mechanism for the aetiology of exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC)."
What can I do to help Muscle Cramps
Cramps usually go away on their own, without treatment, but you can help yourself with the following:
Stop the activity that caused the cramp.
Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle.
Hold the joint in a stretched position until the cramp stops.
Preventing Muscle Cramps
Until we learn the exact cause of muscle cramps, it will be difficult to say with any confidence how to prevent them. However, these tips are most recommended by experts and athletes alike:
Improve fitness and avoid muscle fatigue
Hydrate well (at least 2 glasses of water) before and during the event whether it be digging the garden or running a couple of kilometres. (Extreme examples of hydration are American footballers taking 1.5 litres of water intravenously before a game)
Keep the carbs up during the event: eat a banana with your glass of water; the banana also helps to up the electrolyte levels)
Stretch regularly after exercise (exercise includes things like digging in the garden, painting your roof…)
Warm up before exercise
Stretch the calf muscle: In a standing lunge with both feet pointed forward, straighten the rear leg.
Stretch the hamstring muscle: Sit with one leg folded in and the other straight out, foot upright and toes and ankle relaxed. Lean forward slightly, touch foot of straightened leg. (Repeat with opposite leg.)
Stretch the quadriceps muscle: While standing, hold top of foot with opposite hand and gently pull heel toward buttocks. (Repeat with opposite leg.)