You’re sleeping soundly when all of a sudden it feels like somebody is reaching in your calf and squeezing your muscle. Perhaps you’re in a bar with some girlfriends and your neck starts moving in strange, it-looks-like-you’re-a-terrible-dancer way. Or maybe you’re just minding your own business, watching television when you pelvic thrust off the couch because, out of nowhere, the same sensation happens in your thigh. Wherever it may be, when you’ve lost control of your muscle, it’s cramps.
What Causes Cramps
Whether we’re fit or flabby, old or young, male or female, cramps are just about as prevalent as a red carpet fashion faux pas. And I’m not talking about menstrual cramps; I’m talking about charley horses, nighttime leg cramps, and crick-in-the-neck pains.
Many things cause cramps: pregnancy, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, and other serious health issues. But the majority of us suffer from what are called “true cramps.” So what makes a cramp true? Technically, it’s the involuntary and sustained contraction of a muscle, most likely caused by hyperexcitability of the nerves that control the muscle. Oftentimes the muscle is contracted forcibly and won’t relax for some time, from seconds to over an hour. These are the cramps that make you have to ask—or bribe—someone to slowly massage the back of your leg.
True cramps are the most common type of muscle cramps and have various predisposing factors:
Cramps occur during or after a strenuous activity—often one your muscles might not be used to. An example might be when you’re in yoga class and cramp up so much that your Downward Dog now looks like some sort of pathetic road kill.
After sitting or lying in an awkward position for a period of time, your muscles grow tired and cramp up from being in that uncomfortable position. Translation—if you’ve just fallen asleep on an airplane you are in the cramp red zone.
Not surprisingly, these occur while sleeping. When your muscles are relaxed, any quick movement that shortens the muscle, such as pointing your toe or straightening your leg, can cause your muscles to cramp.
As if there aren’t enough reasons to hydrate, drinking adequate amounts of water can prevent muscle cramps, especially during vigorous or hot weather exercise.
Low magnesium, calcium, or potassium levels
Low blood levels of either magnesium or calcium can predispose someone toward true cramps because these minerals play a key role in nerve excitability. Low levels of potassium may also play a role in cramps.
Certain medications, injury, and illness may also cause muscle cramps.
What Makes Them Go Away
So what do you do about these cramps? Well, the bad news is that it’s often hard to determine the cause of cramps. The great news is, regardless of whether they’re caused by activity or lack thereof, dehydration or low mineral levels, in most cases there are several options of kicking cramps—maybe even forever.
Begin by stretching your muscle slowly. Sometimes a soft massage on the sore spot will help reduce the cramping. Any fast movement or hard pressure will increase the cramp or the soreness, so be gentle and cautious.
Make sure you drink a lot of water.
Getting your vitamins
You may want to evaluate your diet to ensure you’re getting enough magnesium and calcium, especially if you are pregnant or elderly, times when these minerals may be in low levels. Good sources of magnesium include halibut, nuts, and spinach; good sources of calcium include dairy products, broccoli, and salmon.
Not that you need anything else to add to your to-do list in, but if you’re like me, cramps get you often and when they hit, they don’t hold back. So throw some extra greens in your cart next time you’re at the grocery. Drink that extra glass of water at your desk during work. Stretch. The point is, cramps are easily fixed—and sometimes even avoidable.