Muscle Cramps occur when a muscle contracts with great intensity and stays contracted, without relaxing as normal. Muscle Cramps are common and their effects range from mild discomfort to considerable pain. Common areas of muscle cramping include the calves (particularly at night), 'stitches' (pain in the side while running) and foot cramps. The causes of cramping can vary considerably, ranging from heat exhaustion and dehydration to hormonal imbalances and mineral deficiencies.
A Muscle Cramp is a painful and prolonged spasm in a muscle, which refuses to stretch out again following contraction. Normally, a muscle moves a limb by contracting (tightening to exert a pulling force). It then stretches out when the movement is finished or when another muscle exerts force in the opposite direction.
Signs & Symptoms:
Common signs and symptoms of muscle cramps include:
- A sharp, sudden and painful spasm, or tightening, of a muscle. It commonly occurs in the legs
- The affected muscles may feel hard when touched
- The muscle may appear visibly distorted or there may be twitching under the skin
- Extremely severe cramps in the arms and legs, which may begin without warning
- Persistent cramping pains in lower abdominal muscles, which may occur with back pain or during menstruation. The abdominal muscles are commonly affected and may also indicate heat cramps
Persistent and severe cramping may indicate a serious condition. Severe cramping in the arms and chest region may indicate a heart attack. Please see a doctor.
Cause of Muscle Cramsp:
- Muscle contraction occurs in response to electrical signals from nerves. Transmission of these signals is dependent on minerals such as calcium, sodium and magnesium, which surround and permeate muscle cells. Any abnormality in the flow of electrical signals to the muscles can cause a cramp. This may be due to imbalances in those minerals, as well as in certain hormones, body fluids and chemicals, or malfunctions in the nervous system itself
- People who work or exercise in conditions which overheat their bodies are prone to depleting fluids and minerals, which can lead to cramping. Inadequate fluid intake and physical exertion (particularly when the weather is hot) may cause heat cramps. Without adequate rehydration and temperature reduction (a rest in the shade), heat cramps can progress to heatstroke and heat exhaustion
- Diabetes and problems with the thyroid gland produce hormonal imbalances. This can interfere with the balance of minerals around the muscle and can also cause cramps
- It is thought that a reduced oxygen supply in the blood may be important in the development of some cramps. This is more evident in smokers, where the blood oxygen levels are often lower than normal because of carbon monoxide inhaled while smoking. Smokers engaged in hard physical labour may find they experience cramps more often than non smokers. Severe cold may also induce Muscle Cramps
The following may help relieve muscular cramps:
- Drink six to eight glasses of water every day
- Begin an exercise programme. Remember to be aware that fluid loss increases during warmer weather
- Practise regular stretching exercises, such as yoga, particularly before bed
- Smoking may also provoke Muscle Cramps. Ask your Pharmacist or Doctor for advice about quitting.
The Role of Vitamins and Herbs:
Muscle cramping is most commonly associated with an imbalance in calcium, magnesium and potassium levels. The following supplements may only be of assistance if dietary intake is inadequate:
- Calcium - alterations in calcium levels may affect leg cramps, particularly during pregnancy. Calcium is required for normal muscle contraction. Calcium is particularly effective for Muscle Cramps which are active when resting
- Magnesium plays an important role in neuromuscular contractions. Magnesium is involved in calcium function in the body. While calcium is necessary for correct muscle contraction, magnesium is necessary for muscle relaxation. It is therefore important to combine magnesium and calcium supplementation. The energy for smooth, skeletal, vascular and cardiac muscle contraction and relaxation is dependent on magnesium. Magnesium is particularly effective for Muscle Cramps which are active when pressure is applied or with exercise
- Vitamin E may eliminate nocturnal leg or foot cramps and restless leg syndrome in many people. Vitamin E may also reduce Muscle Cramps due to exercise. Vitamin E is also useful for muscle cramps caused by poor circulation and varicose veins
- Potassium is necessary for correct calcium and magnesium metabolism and may help relieve Muscle Cramps. Potassium is responsible for stimulating nerve impulses for muscle contraction and relaxation
- Passionflower may have an anti-spasmodic and relaxing action
- Valerian may help relax muscles. It is believed to have an anti-spasmodic, carminative and mild sedative action
- Ginger is particularly effective for Muscle Cramps caused by poor circulation. Ginger is believed to be a carminative and anti-spasmodic agent.