Rare is the athlete who has not had the misfortune of suffering a muscle cramp. Muscle cramps can range from the relatively minor nuisances that can be worked out in a matter of minutes to the more severe cramps that can sideline athletes for an indeterminate period of time.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, muscle cramps are often the byproduct of an overused or injured muscle. When a muscle cramps, that muscle is involuntarily contracting, and that contraction can be very painful. Because athletes tend to repeat their motions when performing exercises, it's not uncommon for athletes to cramp up from time to time. But even men and women who live sedentary lifestyles can suffer from muscle cramps, which the NLM notes could be triggered by alcoholism, hypothyroidism or kidney failure. Women may suffer muscle cramps when they are pregnant or menstruating.
Certain medications may also cause muscle cramps. Men and women concerned about muscle cramps should read the potential side effects of their medications carefully or speak directly with their physicians before taking any medicines that may cause muscle cramps. The online medical resource WebMD notes that medications such as Lasix, a diuretic used to remove fluid from the body, and Crestor, a statin prescribed to adults with high cholesterol, can cause muscle cramps.
While dehydration and electrolyte depletion has long been linked to exercise-associated muscle cramps, researchers have been questioning, if not disputing, that link for many years. A 2008 study from South African researchers published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine did not support a link between exercise-associated muscle cramps and dehydration or electrolyte depletion.
Muscle cramps tend to be painful and can occur in the legs, hands, arms, or abdomen or along the rib cage. When cramps occur below the waist, such as in the calf muscle, it can be difficult to stand up.
Treating muscle cramps
Muscle cramps require immediate treatment so sufferers can alleviate the pain and/or discomfort cramps can cause. Massaging the cramped muscle or applying ice or heat can alleviate the cramp and its associated pain.
Calf or hamstring cramps may be alleviated by putting weight on the affected leg and bending the knee slightly. Such cramps may also be treated by sitting or lying down with the affected leg straight out and pulling the foot toward the head.
To treat quadriceps cramps (those that occur in the front of the thigh), hold onto to something steady and pull the foot of the affected leg back toward the buttock.
Preventing future cramps
One of the most effective ways to prevent future cramps is to listen to your body when it's sending you signals that it is fatigued. Overused muscles are vulnerable to cramps, so remember to include rest in your exercise regimen so muscles have time to recover. If your body feels overtaxed or fatigued before or during a workout, skip the workout or stop it immediately to reduce your risk of cramps or injury.
Deficiencies in certain vitamins can directly or indirectly lead to muscle cramps. While the reasons behind the link between thiamine, pantothenic acid and pyridoxine deficiencies and muscle cramps is unknown, speak with your physician about how to include these vitamins in your diet if you have been experiencing muscle cramps.
Cramps can be painful and derail athletes. Learning to prevent cramps can protect athletes and ensure they are not sidelined from their favorite activities.