Whether we call them cramps, stitches, or just a pain in the butt, muscle contractions can strike without warning, putting a serious damper on any workout, practice, or especially intense game of charades. But what’s to blame for these uncomfortable muscle troubles? And is there a way to stop them in their tracks?
Crampin’ My Style — The Need-to-Know
It seems no one’s completely safe from muscle cramps, which commonly attack the calf muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, arms, and abs. But what’s going on behind the pain? In a perfect world, muscle fibers shorten and lengthen back up when they contract. A cramp occurs when the muscle fibers stay shortened, causing tension along with that irritable, squeezing sensation.
Muscle spasms can also happen off the court, creeping in when we least expect it. Cramps can occur up to six hours after exercise (talk about a sneak attack!) so we may not be safe even after hitting the showers. And don’t rule out the notorious charley horse, which often attacks the leg muscles in the middle of the night (and we thought nightmares were bad news).
Cramp On, Cramp Off — Your Action Plan
Sorry to say, there are no 100 percent proven ways to prevent these knots from tying up our workouts Exercise-induced muscle cramp. Proposed mechanisms and management. Bentley, S. Sports Medicine, 1996 Jun;21(6):409-20.. Still, scientists have looked at ways that may help prevent — or even stop — a muscle cramp from occurring. So try out these suggestions for combating cramps:
- Water down. When in doubt, hit the water fountain. Many experts suggest dehydration is a leading cause of muscle cramps (though other research doesn’t blame a lack of water as the culprit) Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes. Schwellnus, M.P., Drew, N., Collins, M. UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Cape Town, South Africa. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2011 Jun;45(8):650-6. Epub 2010 Dec 9.. Worst-case scenario? Staying hydrated.
- Fill up on electrolytes. A lack of sodium and potassium may be the reason for that side stitch Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. Jung, A.P., Bishop, B.A., Al-Nawwas, A., et al. University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC. Journal of Athletic Training, 2005 Apr-Jun; 40(2): 71–75.. So down some electrolytes (Gatorade, anyone?) to get your fill. Or go bananas — they’re packed with potassium, too.
- Try a vitamin. Some studies suggest getting enough vitamins and minerals — including vitamin B, D, E, magnesium, and zinc — may help ward off the attack of a muscle cramp (or at least help ease the pain) Role of calcium and vitamin D in the treatment of muscle pain. Liang, R. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 1985 June; 29(2): 90–91. Muscle cramps and magnesium deficiency: case reports. Bilbey, D.L., Prabhakaran, V.M. Trinity Medical Clinic, Trinity Bay, Nfld. Can Fam Physician, 1996 July; 42: 1348–1351. A selected controlled trial of supplementary vitamin E for treatment of muscle cramps in hemodialysis patients. El-Hennaway, A.S. Zaib, S. Nephrology Department, Coney Island Hospital, Brooklyn, NY. American Journal of Therapeutics, 2010 Sep-Oct;17(5):455-9. Assessment: symptomatic treatment for muscle cramps (an evidence-based review): report of the therapeutics and technology assessment subcommittee of the American academy of neurology. Katzberg, H.D., Khan, A.H. So, YT. 1080 Montreal Ave., St. Paul, MN. Neurology, 2010 Feb 23;74(8):691-6. Preliminary observation: oral zinc sulfate replacement is effective in treating muscle cramps in cirrhotic patients. Kugelmas, M. Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2000 Feb;19(1):13-5..
- Jump around. When small nerves in our muscles get fatigued, cramping can occur. Luckily, jumping drills called plyometrics may help keep these nerves in our muscles from tiring. Do them a few times a week after working out to help prevent cramping.
- Warm-up and cool down. A proper warm-up and cool down may help keep cramps at bay. So make sure to carve out time to get those muscles movin’ before working out and relaxed once done.
- Keep things flexible. Staying limber may help prevent cramps from creeping in. Don’t forget to stretch before and after exercise. Try hitting the yoga mat, too.
- Stretch the spot. Once the cramping occurs, stop, drop, and streeetch. Or treat yo’ self with a massage to really hit the knot.
- Take a chill pill. Once the pain begins, pull over. Overexertion or high-intensity training can cause cramps Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes. Schwellnus, M.P., Drew, N., Collins, M. UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Cape Town, South Africa. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2011 Jun;45(8):650-6. Epub 2010 Dec 9..
- Hit the pharmacy. Anti-inflammatory medications may help combat the soreness from muscle spasms. Or, try the alt route with herbal supplements shown to help ease cramping, too Cramps and muscular pain: prevention with pycnogenol in normal subjects, venous patients, athletes, claudicants and in diabetic microangiopathy. Vinciguerra, G., Belcar, G., Cesarone, M.R., et al. Irvine 2 Vascular Laboratory and Physiology Department of Biomedical Sciences, G. D'Annunzio University, Chieti, Italy. Angiology, 2006 May-Jun;57(3):331-9.. It’s always best to check with a doctor first, of course!
- Drink... Pickle juice? Yep, it could work Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. Miller, K.C., Mack, G.W., Knight, K.L., et al. Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2010 May;42(5):953-61.. But they may just be better on a sandwich.
Andrew Kalley: "Cramping at the end of the day is a muscular response to fatigue and over exertion. It rarely has to do with hydration. This can happen to elite and beginner athletes. When the muscular demand is higher than what the muscle has been trained for, there is a greater risk for cramping. The best solution is training properly. I know that's pretty broad, but training must be progressive and relevant to what you are training for."
AC Del Re: "Based on my experience and others’… staying hydrated and replenishing electrolytes may help (although I’m not sure about pickle juice other than the high sodium content!). [Also, keep on top of] important day-to-day health behaviors: exercise, stretching, warming up, and dietary means."
Greatist wants to know: What makes you cramp up? And have any of the above remedies ever worked for you? Tell us in the comments section below!
Illustration by Julien Tromeur