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Heat Cramps

Heat Cramps Overview

Heat cramps are painful, brief muscle cramps. Muscles may spasm or jerk involuntarily. Heat cramps can occur during exercise or work in a hot environment or begin a few hours later.

Heat cramps usually involve muscles that are fatigued by heavy work, such as calves, thighs, and shoulders.

  • You are most at risk if you are doing work or activities in a hot environment -- usually during the first few days of an activity you're not used to.
  • You are also at risk if you sweat a great deal during exercise and drink large amounts of water or other fluids that lack salt.

 

Causes of Heat Cramps

The exact cause of heat cramps is unknown. They are probably related to electrolyte problems. Electrolytes include various essential minerals, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. They undergo chemical changes in your tissues. An imbalance can cause problems.

Sweat contains a large amount of sodium, and drinking fluids with inadequate sodium content may result in a serious low-sodium condition called hyponatremia. Some factories have virtually eliminated heat cramps in their workers by supplying salt-enriched fluids.

Symptoms of Heat Cramps

Muscle spasms that are:

  • Painful
  • Involuntary
  • Brief
  • Intermittent
  • Usually self-limited (go away on their own)

 

When to Seek Medical Care

Heat cramps can be quite painful. Consider seeking medical attention if the symptoms do not go away with rest and after restoring fluid and electrolytes.

Call your doctor if these conditions develop:

  • If you are unable to drink sufficient fluids because you have nausea or are vomiting, you may need IV rehydration with normal saline.
  • Rarely, heat cramps can accompany heat exhaustion. If so, call the doctor.
  • If you have more severe symptoms of heat illness, including dizziness, fatigue, vomiting, headache, malaise, shortness of breath, and high temperatures (greater than 104 degrees), call the doctor for instructions.

If you have more severe forms of heat illness or require IV fluids to rehydrate, seek care at a hospital's emergency department.

Heat Cramp Treatment

The doctor will check you for more severe heat illness and possibly provide you with IV fluid rehydration.

Home Remedies for Heat Cramps

Heat cramps usually go away on their own, but you can try one of these home remedies:

  • Rest in a cool place and drink fluid mixed with salt.
  • Make your own salt solution by mixing 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon table salt dissolved in a quart of water.
  • Drink a commercial beverage with electrolytes, such as sports drinks, which provide an adequate amount of dietary salt.

Salt tablets by themselves should not be used. They can cause stomach upset and don't adequately replace fluid volume lost.

 

Preventing Heat Cramps

If you work in a hot environment, you may experience heat cramps during the first few days on the job. Once you get used to the environment, and make sure you have adequate salt-fluid replacement, you should have no further problems.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on October 30, 2013

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