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 . 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) . Worst-case scenario? Staying hydrated.
- Fill up on electrolytes. A lack of sodium and potassium may be the reason for that side stitch . 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)     .
- 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 .
- 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 . It’s always best to check with a doctor first, of course!
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