A muscle cramp is an involuntary and forced contraction of the muscle and represents a very common disorder, which usually occurs during or immediately after exercise, but not only. It often affects adults, especially in old age, however it can also affect children.
There are different types of cramps, caused by different causes: besides seeing in detail what they are, in this article we will discover how to prevent them in relation to their origin, with advice to be put into practice at the level of food, postural and during sports.
WHAT ARE MUSCLE CRAMPS AND WHICH MUSCLES MAY BE AFFECTED?
Cramps are more or less intense spasms, which cause a sudden and involuntary stiffening and consequent pain in the muscles involved. It can persist from a few seconds to tens of minutes.
Any voluntary muscle is subject to cramping, which can affect a region, an entire muscle or multiple regions involved in a movement. If the clear symptoms make diagnosis rather easy, understanding the underlying causes of this disorder is, however, much more complex.
Simply called cramps, they involve part or all of a single muscle or a group of muscles that act together: this is the case of those that move fingers close together or those of the legs. They are caused by excessive nerve excitability, generally related to excessive muscle use and fatigue, and can occur both during activity and many hours later. True cramps also include cramps that occur as a result of repetitive movements, such as writing or musical exercise. Finally, real cramps can also occur as a result of an injury, as a protective mechanism, for example after a fracture: in these cases, the cramp tends to minimize movement, stiffening the region affected by the injury.
THE MOST COMMON CAUSES OF MUSCLE CRAMPS
Normally, a muscle cramp can easily be resolved by stretching the muscle, in the case of cramps that occur during or after sports, or if the underlying cause is eliminated. Let’s explore this last aspect together, remembering finally that even the assumption of some drugs for chronic therapies can cause the appearance of the disorder.
Resting cramps are very common in the elderly and in bedridden patients, they often occur during the night and are in this case called nocturnal cramps. They can recur several times in a short period of time and begin due to a movement of muscle contraction. A study conducted by researchers of the General Medicine Department of the University of Strasbourg has recently also shown a correlation between alcohol consumption and the onset of cramps, in patients over 60 years of age.
Endurance activities, such as marathons, can cause excessive fluid loss and this dehydration increases the likelihood of cramping, especially in hot weather. The intake of diuretics and hypertonic fluids can also have the same effects, predisposing to cramps, especially in the case of the elderly. Finally, sodium loss has been associated with dehydration cramps.
CRAMPS FROM MINERAL OR VITAMIN DEFICIENCIES
Low levels of calcium or magnesium in the blood increase the excitability of both the nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate, and this predisposes to cramping, especially in the elderly or during pregnancy.
Blood potassium deficiencies can also cause muscle cramps and weakness, as well as a deficiency in B-complex vitamins, including thiamine (B1), pantothenic acid (B5) and pyridoxine (B6).
CRAMPING DUE TO TAKING MEDICATION FOR CHRONIC THERAPIES
Taking some medicines can also cause cramps: this is the case with diuretics, drugs for Alzheimer’s disease, those used to prevent osteoporosis, to treat Parkinson’s disease, for hypertension and to lower cholesterol. That’s why it’s always good to report these side effects to your doctor.
Finally, it should be noted that, in case of frequent muscle cramps, it is good to make sure, together with your doctor, that they are not secondary symptoms of other diseases such as:
- peripheral atherosclerosis
- compression of the nerves of the lumbar region
- muscle diseases
- neurological diseases (Charcot’s disease).
PREVENTING MUSCLE CRAMPS: SOME USEFUL TIPS
To prevent cramping, it is necessary to understand the cause and act on it quickly. There are, however, some tips that may come in handy:
- Stretch before and after your workout during your sporting activity and warm up properly to minimize muscle cramps.
- Moisturise properly before, during and after the activity, especially if the duration exceeds one hour.
- Avoid excessive fatigue and hot situations.
- Re-integrate lost electrolytes (sodium and potassium): taking water after dehydration, in fact, makes the muscles more susceptible to cramps, while electrolytes reverse this effect.
- Pay particular attention to ergonomic factors, using comfortable positions and equipment to carry out daily activities.
- Prevent cramping at rest by practicing stretching exercises before going to bed.
- Always make sure you take adequate doses of calcium and magnesium in order to prevent cramps at rest: for this purpose nutritional supplements can be very useful, but great attention must be paid by those suffering from kidney failure or by those using diuretics which increase the loss of magnesium and the excretion of calcium.
- Increase water intake in older people, who often do not hydrate properly.
- Finally, to prevent and combat cramps during pregnancy, it is sufficient to consume calcium and magnesium supplements, obviously always following the instructions of your doctor.
As we have seen, therefore, many causes contribute to this disorder, but acting with awareness you can prevent muscle cramps effectively, for example by practicing physical exercise with due care. In the case of cramps related to an injury, it may be useful to consult a physiotherapist, who will be able to plan the most suitable recovery path. In this regard, not everyone knows that there are specific health policies for the needs of those who do sports, such as Physiotherapy of UniSalute, which allows you to have access to numerous services at a reasonable cost and time.
Did you know the causes of muscle cramps and how to prevent them?