When a muscle or muscle group contracts suddenly and feels hard and painful, that is a cramp. Muscle cramps generally come in waves, lasting for several seconds at a time and then recurring. They are especially common during and after exercise, as well as with menstruation and pregnancy. Cramps are usually harmless, but they can be a sign of nutritional deficiencies and other health conditions.
Muscle cramps can occur for no apparent reason. Leg cramps, for example, can strike when you lie down or sleep. But a common cause is exercise. Lactic acid, a by-product of glucose metabolism, rise during exercise, and a build-up in a muscle can cause cramps. Dehydration and low levels of potassium, sodium, and other electrolytes can increase the risk of cramps from exercise. Overuse of muscles can cause cramps, and can occur not only with exercise, but also with simple activities such as writing. Stress can also cause some muscles to tense up and cramp.
Abdominal cramps are common just before and during menstruation and at the end of pregnancy. Leg cramps can be a symptom of poor blood circulation due to atherosclerosis or peripheral vascular disease. Muscle twitches can trigger cramps; causes include hypothyroidism, alcoholism, caffeine, anxiety, side effects of medications such as diuretics, and kidney failure.
Stretch before exercising to make the muscle more flexible. Do not stop exercising suddenly- this can trigger a spams. Instead, cool down by walking or doing some other moderate movement. Drink enough fluids to avoid dehydration, but do not drink large amounts of water. Sports drinks containing electrolytes may help prevent both cramps and central nervous system complications, including seizures, caused by electrolyte disturbances.
Use proven techniques to control emotional stress, such as meditation, yoga, and guided imagery. For anxiety, seek help from a mental health professional. If there are frequent muscle cramps that have no apparent cause, cut back on caffeine and alcohol and avoid taking any stimulating medications.
Cramps that persist should be evaluated by a doctor, who may ask about use, exercise, and other habits that can lead to cramps. Blood tests may be done for electrolyte levels, as well as for kidney and thyroid function, and pregnancy. If a muscle or nerve disorder is suspected, spinal X-rays or CT scans and specialized nerve and muscle testing may be done.
Muscle cramps usually go away on their own, but the discomfort can be relieved with self-care measures. Warm or cold compresses can ease the pain. Stretching can help stop cramps and prevent them from occurring. Massage can ease cramps by relaxing the muscles. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can reduce pain from menstrual cramps.