Cramps: What? Why? Can they be prevented?

Cramps can be one of the most painful, uncomfortable experiences ever.

By definition a cramp is a ‘sudden, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle’. They can last from seconds to minutes, and often leave behind a palpable tight knot within the affected muscle.

Cramps can occur for no particular reason, however the most common presentation is during an extended period of vigorous, intense exercise.  For the purpose of this particular blog we are going to focus more on exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC).

There are many proposed theories for why muscle cramps come about. I’m sure many of you would have heard things such as tight & inflexible muscles, heavy sweating, dehydration, poor diet, and general poor physical condition as possible contributing factors. While I don’t disagree with the potential for all of the above to play a role, the theory that most scientists are beginning to agree on is that cramps are due to altered neuro-muscular function of a muscle.

In order for a muscle to contract and relax there is a series of neuromuscular processes that need to take place within muscles and nerves. When this system functions efficiently you can run, lift, jump, play tennis without an issue at all. When the system malfunctions, usually under fatigue, the result can be cramps.

Some people are more prone to cramps than others with research suggesting that these people require less electrical stimulation to produce a cramp thus their neuromuscular system is more sensitive to cramping. I am unfortunately one of those people, I was plagued by cramps, especially at night in my calves. An extremely uncomfortable experience as fellow suffers will understand.

The question is what can we do?

There have been many proposed cures; such as Pickle juice. I kid you not, apparently one of the ingredients in pickle juice can assist with calming down over excitable motor neurons and reduce the length & intensity of cramps.

If pickle juice doesn’t quite tickle your fancy some alternatives that may help are focused around Nutrition, Hydration and Conditioning.

Nutrition comes down to having a regular intake of vitamins and minerals which facilitate efficient neuromuscular function. This can be especially important for athletes who are training for an event, having a good nutrition plan will ensure cells to adapt at using and storing nutrients which fuel optimal performance. From personal experience a magnesium supplement has been a game changer (to the point I felt it necessary to write an entire blog in it which you can read HERE). Magnesium is vital for muscle relaxation and repair, with research indicating that low levels of magnesium and calcium can increase the excitability of the nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate predisposing you to cramps. Since taking magnesium daily I no longer suffer night cramps, I sleep better and generally my body recovers quicker.

Hydration is equally as important, and this refers to not only water but important electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium and potassium that we lose via sweat. Replacing these is essential and sports drinks such as hydrolyte or powerade can be a good option.

Generally cramps are less likely to occur in athletes that are well trained and have adequate conditioning for their chosen sport. The same holds true for the everyday athlete. The more you train a movement or an activity the better your body deals with that specific stress. However that’s not to say that the most conditioned athlete will never cramp; as we now understand there are many factors that come in to play. Personally I think mobility is as important as strength / conditioning when it comes to the ability for our body’s to perform.

Daily maintenance vie self-massage using a trigger ball combined with daily mobility work targeting areas of tension can help with recovery, performance and contribute to overall neuromuscular function.

The take home message?

There is still much needed research to be don’t into cramps with regards to why and how we can best prevent them. So for now… nutrition, hydration, conditioning and maintenance is the best recipe to reduce your risk!

Do you suffer from sore, tight muscles? Active RX offers massage, active release and dry needling all of which can assist with loosen