Alex Hainzinger, Scott & White Wellness Program Specialist, explains muscle cramps and offers advice on how to prevent them.
“Muscle cramps occur when your muscle contracts and doesn’t relax. They happen most of the time during exercise,” says Hainzinger. “But sometimes they happen in bed when you’re just lying there.”
Muscle cramps are most common in the legs, especially in the calves and sometimes in the hamstrings and quadriceps, Hainzinger says.
“Some people aren’t very flexible, and some people don’t stretch enough, so insufficient or improper stretching causes many muscle cramps,” says Hainzinger.
“Some muscle cramps result from muscle fatigue and overwork, and sometimes dehydration is the cause,” says Hainzinger.
“Muscle cramps happen more frequently during hot weather because we lose fluids when we’re hot and sweaty. We also lose electrolytes—especially potassium and magnesium,” says Hainzinger. These nutrients are needed to prevent muscle spasms, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Pain associated with a muscle cramp varies from a slight twitch to sharp pain, and it can last anywhere from a few seconds to 25 to 30 minutes, Hainzinger says. Sometimes you can see your muscle twitching beneath the skin. Occasionally your muscle may tighten and loosen several times before the cramping episode subsides.
Treatment—What to Do If You Get a Muscle Cramp
“If you get a cramp in your calf, for example, stretch out the calf muscle. You want to stretch the area that’s cramped. The pain will go away more quickly if you can get the muscle to release,” Hainzinger suggests.
Hainzinger also recommends applying heat or ice to the sore muscle. Alternating between the two will help relieve any swelling and encourage blood flow to the area.
“If you have a muscle cramp that lasts for more than a couple of days, see your physician. You may have a muscle strain, nerve damage, or some other more serious problem,” Hainzinger says.
“The best thing you can do to prevent muscle cramps is to stay hydrated. Make sure you have a bottle of water with you for whatever kind of exercise you’re doing. Remember: If your mouth is dry, you’re already dehydrated,” says Hainzinger.
“If you have a regular problem with muscle cramps, you may want to follow-up with Gatorade or some other electrolyte-enhancing drink. Another option is to take magnesium or potassium supplements around 30 minutes before working out,” Hainzinger recommends.
Hainzinger also suggests before beginning any exercise activity—whether it’s cardio or weight training—to first warm up your muscles. For example, walk on the treadmill for 10 to 15 minutes and then stretch adequately and properly before exercising in order to get your blood flowing.
Hainzinger further stresses the necessity of good technique for muscle cramp prevention. “Proper form is really important in reducing the risk of muscle cramps,” Hainzinger notes. “You want to correct any muscle imbalances you may have. If you’re not sure of your form, ask a gym employee or trainer. They should be able to help you and give you good advice,” Hainzinger says.