Painful sensation caused by the contraction of muscles is known as cramps or muscle cramps, Charlie Horses or spasms in layman’s language. Muscle cramps cause visible or palpable hardening of the involved muscle. There is nothing to worry about if you are suffering from cramps, as around 95% people get muscle cramps at some or the other point in their life. It is extremely common in adults, and the frequency increasing with the increase in age. Although rare, children too suffer from it while playing, jumping and even sleeping.
Muscle cramps involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle, or several muscles that usually act together. In some cases, the contraction is simultaneous in the muscles that ordinarily move body parts in opposite directions.
True cramps: Most common type of skeletal muscle cramps, these are caused by hyper-excitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscles. They are a result of vigorous activities like sports, injury, dehydration, low potassium levels, low blood calcium & magnesium.
Contractures: Contractures occur when the muscles are not able to relax or they are fatigued. This is caused due to depletion of adenosine tryphosphate (ATP), which acts as a source of energy for the cells and helps the muscles to work.
Tetany: The type of cramping which activates all the nerve endings in the body is known as tetany. Besides affecting other nerve functions in the body, tetany affects the muscles of the body and thus results into cramps.
Dystonic cramps: These occur when the muscle, which is not needed for a movement is contracted. It usually affects the smaller muscle groups like eyelids, jaw, larynx, etc.
Abdominal cramps: Painful muscular contractions in the abdomen cause these. There can be various reasons behind this type- like diarrhoea, constipation, gas troubles, etc. They are also common during pregnancy.
Menstrual cramps: Menstrual cramps in the stomach, back or legs are common in women during their menstrual cycle.
Hand & leg cramps: These are quite common. Besides a particular disease or side-effects of a drug, weightlifting, excessive running or stretching may cause muscle cramps in these parts of the body.
There are various causes that results into contraction of muscle, giving rise to painful spasm called muscle cramps:
- Muscle fatigue
- Straining or overuse of muscle
- Insufficient blood supply
- Deficiency of minerals like sodium and potassium
- During pregnancy, are often the result of changes in calcium metabolism
- Drastic change in temperatures
- Insufficient warming up before exercising
- In some cases, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disorders and anaemia too cause muscle cramps.
Prevention, home remedies and cure
Muscle cramps do not have a fixed duration. It can last anywhere from few seconds to an hour or even longer. Though it cannot be avoided, one should practice following methods to ease the pinching and severe pain caused by the spasm or contraction of muscles.
- Increase the intake of fluids, especially water to avoid dehydration.
- Increase potassium and calcium-rich supplements in your diet; it will provide relief from leg cramps.
- Stretch the muscle to release the knot or contraction, and the cramp is likely to go away.
- Using heating pads, cold packs or taking bath with warm water would ease the pain caused by muscle cramps.
- Massaging the muscle cramp would relax the contraction and ease the pain.
- In case of a cramp in the leg, stand up and try to walk. This would help to release the spasm.