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How to prevent muscle cramps

Cramp, we’ve all been there. Rolling around clutching our foot, calf or thigh in sheer agony, so I’m pretty sure we know what it feels like, but how many of us actually know what it is?! Well, with this handy guide, not only will you have all the answers you need, but you will also be fully equipped with the knowledge to treat it quickly and easily to get you back in the game. So let’s start with the basics . . .

What is Cramp?

Cramp is a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction or over shortening, and while it may feel extremely painful at the time, it is usually harmless and disappears after a few minutes. However, it can temporarily cause a paralysis like feeling which can be pretty debilitating for yourself or a teammate. Did you know that back in the 1900’s cramp was commonly classed as a productivity problem for manual labourers carrying out physical tasks in hot environments? Miners, construction workers, foundry workers and even military personnel often suffered as a result of their occupations. Excessive sweating meant a loss of sodium chloride (salt) and without appropriate replacement, workers found themselves suffering from fatigue, cramp or sometimes even collapsing. So it’s this level of understanding that enables us to treat athletes today.

Dehydration vs Fatigue

There appears to be two main theories when it comes to cramp. Dehydration, as we briefly touched on above, means that if you lose a lot of sodium and don’t replace it (which is common through sweating) it can cause fluid shifts and an electrolyte imbalance in the body that in turn causes cramp. The other theory is that muscle overload and neuromuscular fatigue is the main factor. It is thought that the fatigue contributes to an imbalance in excitatory (firing more) and inhibitory (firing less) impulses which therefore results in muscle cramp. Both of which theories are fully supported by recent case studies and relevant research and although both arguments are valid, it’s important to remember that in most cases there isn’t just one reason, cramp has many contributing factors so it is best to cater for all eventualities by trying prevention and treatment remedies.

What are the types of Cramp?

Skeletal Cramp: Perhaps the most common cramp for athletes. This affects the muscles that are attached to our skeleton and can, in normal circumstances, be controlled voluntarily. However when cramp attacks, these muscles shorten and cause considerable pain. The more commonly affected areas include the calf, thigh and the arch of the foot. These cramps are associated with strenuous exercise hence the term EAMC (Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps) however, they can also occur when resting, and while the initial onset may only last a few minutes, the aftermath can leave you with tender muscles for days afterwards. Nocturnal Leg Cramps: Just when you think you are off for a nice long sleep, your leg muscles have other ideas! Again, they can last anywhere from seconds to minutes but the muscle soreness can last much longer. They quite frequently happen while resting after exercising at night or after a particularly strenuous day when blood flow is reduced due to prolonged sitting or lying down.

What are the best treatments for cramp?

As cramp can happen when you are least expecting it, it's always best to be prepared. Prevention:
  • Regular stretching of the muscles, not just before and after exercise.
  • Regular massages in order to keep the muscles soft and supple.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Review your sodium intake with a view to increasing if required.
  • Reduce fatigue.
  • Stay well fuelled with adequate carbohydrate intake.
  • Practise mental relaxation techniques in preparation for big events such as controlled breathing to remain focused.
During a cramp attack:
  • Stay calm.
  • Stretch the affected area.
  • Try and walk it off, slowly putting pressure on the affected area in order to relieve muscle tension and shortening.
After a cramp attack: Medication While it may be tempting to reach for paracetamol or ibuprofen, the reality is it takes too long to work therefore the techniques above would be much more beneficial. However you should seek medical advice if your cramps last longer than 10 minutes, they are disturbing your sleep or you have any numbness or swelling as medication may be prescribed for prolonged attacks.