Muscle Cramps- A Rough Guide

What Are Muscle Cramps?

A muscle cramp occurs when a muscle suddenly becomes forcibly and uncontrollably shortened and locked into a painful spasm. A spasm occurs when a muscle or even a few fibres of a muscle contract involuntarily. If the spasm is forceful and sustained, it becomes a cramp. A muscle cramp is defined as involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. This causes a visible hardening of the involved muscle. Muscle cramps can affect any skeletal muscles in the body, but are most common in muscles or muscle groups that span two joints. Examples of where cramps are found include the legs, hands, tummy muscles (abdominals), the muscles around the rib cage, the feet and the toes. Muscle cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes or longer. A muscle cramp found in a particular location may also recur multiple times until it finally goes away.

What Are The Causes And Risk Factors Of Muscle Cramps?

Although the causes of cramps are still not fully known, there are factors that can increase the risk of developing muscle cramps. Cramps occur when the normal mechanisms controlling muscle contraction and relaxation become temporarily impaired. These control mechanisms involve the electrical stimulation of muscle fibres (motor unit firing) and subsequent deactivation (relaxation). Genetics are another cause of muscle cramps as some people are simply more prone to catching muscle cramps than others. Age also can be considered another cause of muscle cramps as muscles in the elderly are likely to get muscle cramps than younger people. Injuries also increase the risk of cramps where certain muscles can go into spasm in order to brace and protect the injured area.

Other factors include vigorous exercise, fatigue, dehydration, poor blood circulation, tense or stiff muscles, vitamin deficiencies, pregnancy usually in the later stages, liver disease because of too much alcohol consumption, electrolyte imbalances, bad posture and many others.

What Are The Requirements For Efficient Muscle Contraction?

There are a number of psychological requirements for efficient muscle contraction and relaxation and if any of the following requirements are not met, muscle cramping becomes more likely.

• Adequate hydration and proper and adequate levels of the electrolyte minerals (together they’re needed for motor unit firing and relaxation)

• Well-trained muscles that are both supple and sufficiently conditioned for the exercise being undertaken (muscle cramps are much more likely to occur in muscles that are unused to vigorous training

• Adequate rest and recovery as muscles are more likely to become cramped when fatigued.

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Advice On Muscle Cramps

Anyone can experience muscle cramps, regardless of age, gender or fitness level.

Cramps can occur not just while you exercise, but also while you sit, walk, or even just sleep. Sometimes, the slightest movement that shortens a muscle can trigger a cramp. However, in otherwise healthy people, the fact remains that muscle cramps are most common in endurance athletes such as marathon runners and triathletes, and those who perform strenuous physical activities without previous experience or lacking base conditioning. In short, the fitter and better trained you are for your event, the lower the risk of muscle cramps.

Cramps are most likely to strike towards the end of intense or prolonged exercise, or around 4-6 hours later, indicating that muscular fatigue (especially unaccustomed fatigue) is a major factor. Despite the lack of unequivocal evidence however, most scientific authorities agree that any nutritional cramp-prevention strategy should aim to address three important areas:

1. Maintain adequate hydration

2. Ensuring adequate dietary intake of the electrolyte minerals

3. Replenishing energy in the form of carbohydrate

How Can You Prevent Muscle Cramps?

• Strategies involving stretching and relaxing muscles are proven ways to reduce cramping risk and help treat cramping when it occurs (later).

• Drink lots of water to avoid dehydration

• Increase your sodium and potassium levels (electrolytes)

• Try vitamins , magnesium and zinc

• Good Posture

• Stretch and Massage your Muscles- Staying active a great way to prevent muscle spasms since people who are physically fit maintain more muscle mass and usually have less inflammation, plus they tend to be more flexible.

• Proper warm-ups and cool-downs before and after exercise can help prevent muscles from becoming overly fatigued, strained or pulled. Before a workout try warming up by jogging in place, gently rehearsing the motions of the exercise to follow, getting your heart rate up, and doing dynamic movements that bring blood to your major muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.

• When you’re done exercising, spend 10–15 minutes stretching your major muscle groups by holding stretches for at least 20–30 seconds. Make sure to stretch some of the most vulnerable areas. You can also make muscles become more resilient when you’re going about your day-to-day activities, such as walking with good posture and proper form in your feet, and sitting upright (not slouched) when you’re at a desk. You also want to avoid overtraining and build in plenty of rest for proper muscle recovery as a preventative measure.

• Heat or cold pack- Use a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath or directing the steam of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle can also help. Massaging the cramped muscle with ice may also help. Heat relaxes muscles and can be beneficial if you deal with pain, tightness or cramping. Try applying heat to areas where you frequently get spasms by using a warmed towel or heating pad. Lay the hot compress on tense or tight muscles while you massage them, or try using a steam room or sauna for all-over heat. You can also do the same with ice packs by using an ice pack and applying it to the swollen or painful cramp areas several times per day when it occurs.

• Walk around or try your best to move the affected muscle cramp

• Avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine

• Make sure you have enough foods that are rich in calcium, sodium, and magnesium

• Ride a bike to help strengthen and stretch your muscles

• Make sure you stretch your muscles everyday including before and after exercise and at bedtime and in the morning as well as the day and evening

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