What is muscle cramp?
A muscle cramp is a sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle. This type of pain is most commonly experienced in the legs, and therefore often called a leg cramp. Leg cramps occur when the muscle suddenly and forcefully contracts.
What causes a leg cramp?
The exact cause of a leg cramp is not well understood. Skeletal muscle cramps can be categorized into four major types. These include “true” cramps, tetany, contractures, and dystonic cramps.
(1) True cramps
True cramps involve part or all of a single muscle or a group of muscles that generally act together. We believe that true cramps are caused by hyper excitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscles.
- Injury: Persistent muscle spasm may occur as a protective mechanism following an injury, such as a broken bone.
- Vigorous activity: True cramps are commonly associated with the vigorous use of muscles and muscle fatigue.
- Rest cramps: Cramps at rest are very common, especially in older adults. Rest cramps often occur during the night. The actual cause of night cramps is unknown.
- Dehydration: Vigorous activities can cause excessive fluid loss from perspiration. This kind of dehydration increases the likelihood of true cramps.
- Low blood calcium, magnesium: Low blood levels of either calcium or magnesium directly increase the excitability of both the nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate. This may be a predisposing factor for the spontaneous true cramps experienced by many older adults.
In tetany, all of the nerve cells in the body are activated, which then stimulate the muscles. This reaction causes spasms or cramps throughout the body. Low calcium and low magnesium, which increase the activity of nerve tissue non-specifically, can produce tetanic cramps.
Contractures result when the muscles are unable to relax for an even more extended period than a common muscle cramp.
(4) Dystonic cramps
In this type of cramping muscles that are not needed for the intended movement are stimulated to contract. Muscles that are affected by this type of cramping include those that ordinarily work in the opposite direction of the intended movement, and/or others that exaggerate the movement.
What are the symptoms of muscle cramps?
Characteristically, a cramp is painful, often severely so. Usually, the sufferer must stop whatever activity is under way and seek relief from the cramp; the person is unable to use the affected muscle while it is cramping.
Severe cramps may be associated with soreness and swelling, which can occasionally persist up to several days after the cramp has subsided. At the time of cramping, the knotted muscle will bulge, feel very firm, and may be tender.
How can muscle cramps be prevented?
- Stretching before and after exercise or sports, along with an adequate warm-up and cooldown, to prevent cramps that are caused by vigorous physical activity.
- Good hydration before, during, and after the activity is important, especially if the duration exceeds one hour, and replacement of lost electrolytescan also be helpful.
What is the treatment for a leg cramp?
Stretching and massaging the affected muscle can usually relieve an attack of cramp. Most cramps soon ease off. Painkillers are not usually helpful, as they do not act quickly enough. However, a painkiller such as paracetamol may help to ease muscle discomfort and tenderness that sometimes persists for up to 24 hours after a cramp has gone.
What can I do to help me heal faster?
- Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
- Wearing shoes that have proper support
- Stretching your leg muscles for a few minutes before you go to bed
- Flexing your foot up toward your head
- Massaging the cramped muscle with your hands or with ice
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