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Jacksonville, NC 28540
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Got Cramps?

Have you ever been awakened in the night by a “charley horse” or suffered from a severe and sudden muscle cramp?  If so, you know how excruciating they can be.  Though, usually harmless, muscle cramps can make it impossible to use the affected muscle at the time.

With summer upon us here in Eastern North Carolina, most of us are spending more time outside doing yard work, exercising, and playing outside with our children.  Studies performed over 100 years ago found that mining workers experienced muscle cramping after physical work in hot and humid conditions.  Long periods of exercise or physical exertion, particularity in hot weather, can contribute to muscle cramps. 

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle, self-extinguishing within seconds to minutes.  It is often accompanied by a palpable knotting of the muscle. The pathophysiology causing muscle cramps remains poorly understood. It is known that the cramp is from repetitive firing of the action potentials in the muscle. Dehydration, low potassium/magnesium/calcium, overuse of a muscle, simply holding a certain position for too long allowing lactic acid to build in the muscle, inadequate blood supply, and nerve compression can all cause muscle cramping.  The main risk factors for exercise-associated muscle cramps include family history of cramping, previous occurrence of cramps during or after exercise, increased exercise intensity and duration, and inadequate conditioning for the activity. Pregnancy, lumbar stenosis, diabetes, thyroid disease, and being older in age (due to loss of muscle mass and being more prone to overuse of the muscles), can all increase your risk for having cramps.  Research shows that even healthy individuals have experienced muscle cramping.  The prevalence of young, healthy athletes to sedentary older adults over the age of 65, is anywhere from 30%-95%.

Most muscle cramps occur in the calf muscles or the feet.  Treatment for muscle cramping include:

1. Make sure you are well hydrated!  Drink at least 40-60 ounces of water daily, and possibly more with physical exertion outside in the hot temperatures.  Drink a Gatorade for replenishment of potassium, sodium, and calcium (electrolytes) after physical exertion or a G2 with lower sugar content for those with diabetes. 

2.  Stretch! For a calf cramp, stand on the cramping leg with your knee slightly bent, or bend at your ankle to bring your toes toward your head.

3.  Massage the cramping muscle!  Increasing blood flow by massaging can help to relax the muscle. 

4.  Apply heat or ice!  Heat will help to increase blood flow for muscle relaxation, and ice will help to decrease blood flow to decrease pain. 

5.  If you get muscle cramping at night, stretching prior to bed or doing light exercises, like riding a recumbent bike only for a few minutes can help to prevent muscle cramps. 

6.  Taking a vitamin B complex is suggested in some research to help, but needs further evidence to support it.

Hopefully this information and these tips will help you understand cramping and how to avoid them.  If you experience more frequent cramping, or if the pain seems to be staying longer, it may be time to seek some assistance in treating these issues.  Call us at Synergy Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine and schedule a complementary injury screening.  Our Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers can give you some ideas on some massage and stretching techniques to better manage the cramping and pain.

Sarah Teel-Bennett, DPT, WCS, BCB-PMD

Physical Therapist

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