What Are Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are a common issue that many people get from time to time.
If one of your muscles feels like it’s contracting (getting tight) for no reason — and you can’t get it to relax — that’s a muscle cramp. Some people call it a charley horse.
Apart from the pain, you can tell that a muscle is cramping when it feels hard or it looks like it’s bulging. There are several parts of your body where you’re most likely to get muscle cramps:
- Abdomen (belly)
- Hamstrings or the back of your thighs
- Quadriceps or the front of your thighs
- Calves or the back of your lower legs
Causes of Muscle Cramps
- Staying in one position for a long time
- Low levels of electrolytes (like calcium or potassium)
- Poor circulation
- Compressed spinal nerves
- Some medications
- Alcohol abuse
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thryoid)
- Kidney failure
How to Stop Muscle Cramps
Most of the time, you won't need medical care for a cramp. That feeling of tightness and any pain often goes away in a few minutes or even seconds. If not, these remedies for muscle cramps can help.
When a muscle cramp happens, stop the activity you're doing and stretch it out by tightening the opposing muscle. For instance, if the muscle on the back of your thigh cramps, squeeze the muscles on the front of your thigh and lift your leg toward your head.
If you have a calf cramp, stand up and put your weight on the leg with the cramp, gently bend your knee, and actively lift your toes up toward your nose. For a cramped leg, sit on the floor with your leg or foot stretched out in front of you. Keep your leg straight while you gently pull your foot back towards you.
Massage the muscle
After stretching, try massaging the muscle cramp for relief. Use a foam roller or your hands.
A warm bath or shower can help your cramped muscle loosen up. You could also put a heating pad or a warm towel on the area.
Once the pain subsides a little, place an ice pack or a bag of ice on the cramping muscle. Remember to wrap it in a towel first so you don't irritate your skin. You can also try massaging the cramp with the ice pack to help relax the muscle.
Elevate if possible
If you can, lift the part of your body that has the cramp. For instance, if your foot is cramping, prop it up until the cramp starts to go away.
Try over-the-counter pain relief
If none of the above remedies help, take a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If you live with an ongoing health condition or take other medication, check with your doctor first.
If your cramp doesn't get better with self-care or you get frequent muscle cramps, your doctor could prescribe a muscle relaxer. This type of medication can help in the short term, especially if your cramp makes it hard for you to sleep. But talk to your doctor about the pros and cons. Muscle relaxers can cause side effects, like making you feel drowsy and dizzy, that can interfere with your daily routine.
When to See a Doctor
Muscle cramps usually only last a short time. But you may want to speak with your doctor if:
- You have intense pain.
- Your cramps don't go away with self-care.
- You get muscle cramps often.
- Your muscle cramps last a long time before they go away.
- You have muscle weakness or feel clumsy along with cramping.
- You notice leg swelling or changes in your skin (like redness.)
- Your cramps wake you up at night.
Muscle cramps that are severe and happen often could be a sign of an issue with your circulation, nerves, or metabolism (how your body converts food to energy.) It could also due to medications or nutrition.
Call 911 or go to a local hospital right away if:
- Muscles all over your body are cramping.
- The cramping started after you came into contact with something that could be toxic.
Tests that can help find the cause of your cramping include:
- Blood tests, which look at levels of your blood glucose and electrolytes, and how well your liver is working.
- Electromyography (EMG) checks the health of your muscles and nerves.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of your brain and spinal cord can look for issues with your central nervous system.
- Computed tomography (CT) myelogram is an imaging test that provides a detailed look of your nerves and spinal cord.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
A few simple changes can you help you try to stop a muscle cramp before it starts:
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration often plays a part in cramps. Your muscles need fluids to work well, so drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially if you're very active or sweating a lot.
- Stretch. Give your muscles time to loosen before you start a physical activity. If you get cramps in your legs at night, try stretching right before bed.
- Limit caffeine and tobacco. Both are stimulants that can cause muscle cramps.
- Talk to your doctor about supplements. Sometimes, not getting enough of a certain vitamin (like vitamin D) or mineral (like calcium) can cause muscle cramps. Ask your doctor if taking a supplement is right for you.
Muscle cramps can be painful, but they're usually short-lived and not a cause for concern. Self-care like stretching, heat, and massage can help with discomfort in the moment, while stretching and drinking enough water may prevent cramps from happening. If your pain is intense or your muscle cramps keep coming back, talk to your doctor.
Muscle Cramp FAQs
What drink stops muscle cramps?
You may have heard that pickle juice can put an end to a muscle cramp. It is high in potassium, which your muscles and nerves need to function properly. But while there's probably no harm in taking a swig from your pickle jar, there's also no scientific proof that it works.