Cramping My Style: A Look Into What Causes Muscle Cramps
“What causes muscle cramps?” is a very common question we get asked at the clinic. I’m sure you have heard of several different theories as to what causes muscle cramps, as well as home remedies to try. This month we will take a look into what the latest research is saying in regards to the cause and prevention of muscle cramps.
Muscle Cramps At Night:
According to a study in 2017 that was published in the Journal PLOS One 30% of Americans experience occasional night cramps, and approx. 6% of Americans experience night cramps 15 or more times in one month! They also found that night cramps occur more frequently in older adults; and individuals who have hypertension, poor cardiovascular health, diabetes, and sleeping problems. Research has shown that stretching prior to going to bed can reduce the frequency of night cramps. There are also certain medications that can help; however, the best way to prevent night cramps is to improve your overall health.
Naturally when we sleep our feet relax into ankle plantar flexion (toes pointing down). This plantar flexed position contracts/shortens the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) and can lead to cramping. One way to help prevent excessive ankle plantar flexion is to untuck the sheets and blankets at your feet. If the sheets are too snug, it will further increase the amount of ankle plantar flexion that the feet are resting in; therefore increasing the chances of a muscle cramp. Because of our natural resting position at night the gastrocnemius is the most common muscle to cramp. The best way to alleviate a cramp is to stretch the muscle. To stretch the gastrocnemius simply pull the toes upwards; this will engage the anterior tibilias (muscle on top of your shin bone) which will then place the cramping muscle on a stretch.
Muscle Cramps with Exercise:
Have you ever been working out and then all of a sudden there it is the dreaded muscle cramp? Why does this happen? Most people’s first thought is dehydration. While staying hydrated when working out is extremely important,there is more to it than just H2O. Our muscles are in constant communication with our nervous system. They tell the nervous system whether they are contracted or relaxed. Studies have shown that the best way to avoid muscle cramps during exercise is to avoid overexertion. Once a muscle is fatigued the communication can get mixed up causing the muscle to cramp because the signal of relaxation has been “lost”. Exercising in hot or humid conditions causes muscles to fatigue faster, this is when staying hydrated comes into play. Also making sure your body is properly conditioned for exercise will help to ward off muscle cramps. So what do you do if a cramp hits? The very best way to stop the cramping is to stop activity and stretch the muscle. This forces the muscles to stop contracting and allows the relaxation signal to be received through the central nervous system.
Quick recap: The best solution for avoiding muscle cramps is regular stretching and exercise as well as maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Information adapted from LiveScience.com