Muscle cramps refer to the sudden contraction of one or more muscles in your body. Muscle cramps are involuntary contractions that can take place while you are asleep or during strenuous exercise. Muscle cramps are often excruciatingly painful and make it impossible to use the muscle that is being taxed. However, muscle cramps are usually harmless and recover in just a few hours.
Muscle cramps are often caused due to dehydration, keeping your muscles in one position for a long period of time and muscle strains. Muscle cramps or nocturnal cramps that occur at night affect the toe or calf muscles while you are sleeping.
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply sticking to one position for a prolonged period of time may result in a muscle cramp. Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps. Another common type of muscle cramp — nocturnal cramps — occurs in your calf muscles or toes during sleep.
Sometimes the main cause of muscle cramps is not known however, it is possible that the muscle cramp is a symptom of a major underlying factor or complication such as:
- Mineral deficiency. When your body lacks potassium, magnesium and calcium you are more likely to suffer from muscle cramps. Mineral depletion is often caused due to major factors such as high blood pressure which leads to the loss of potassium.
- Inadequate blood supply. You may feel pain similar to muscle cramps when your blood vessels supplying blood to your extremities become narrow. This is also referred to as the arteriosclerosis of the extremities and is more likely to occur when you are exercising, which stops when you rest.
- Nerve compression. Cramp-like pain can also be felt when the nerves in your spine become compressed. The longer you walk, the more pain you will feel. You can reduce the pain by walking in a flexed manner.
- Kidney, thyroid/hormone and nerve disorders. These complications may also lead to muscle cramps. Sometimes hypoglycemia and anemia may cause muscle cramps or pain similar to muscle cramps as well.
Signs and symptoms
- Sudden and sharp pain in the muscles, usually of your legs
- You may feel a hard lump of muscle under the skin of the affected area
Seek medical attention if the following symptoms result:
- Prolonged and/or frequent muscle cramps
- Muscle cramps that cause severe discomfort
- Muscle cramps that do not ease out with treatment
- You suspect that muscle cramps are not caused due to an obvious reason such as nocturnal cramps or strenuous exercise
The following self-help tips may alleviate the pain caused due to muscle cramps:
- If you are suffering from a muscle cramp in your leg, simply stretch out your lower leg
- After stretching, massage the affected muscle. If your foot is affected, simply massage the foot without stretching. For the leg, pull your foot upwards towards your shin while massaging
- For your upper leg, extend your leg and massage till the pain lessens
- Use a heating pad to apply heat on the affected muscle. You can apply a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel for this purpose as well. Use a damp cloth instead of a dry one and avoid applying direct heat on the affected area.
- If you do not recover from the pain even after treatment, or if the pain persists, seek medical attention.
To learn more about muscles cramps, how to recognize and manage them enrol in a first aid course with a St Mark James training provider. These courses teach candidates with “hands on” training how to manage these and other minor emergencies.
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