A muscle cramp is a sudden contraction of one or more of the muscles. The result can be intense pain and an inability to use the affected muscles. In athletes, common causes of leg cramps are overuse, stress and dehydration during sports played in warm weather. Overuse, injury, muscle strain or staying in the same position also may cause cramps. Writer's cramp affects the thumb and first two fingers of the hand with which one writes and is caused by using the same muscles for long periods. At home, one can develop hand or arm cramps spending long hours gripping a paintbrush or using a garden tool. Other causes may include circulatory or nerve problems. Some cramps occur during rest. A common variety of muscle cramp occurs in the calf muscles or toes during sleep.
What are the causes?
In addition to the more common causes of cramps - muscle overuse, dehydration, injury and strain - muscle cramps in the legs can result from:
Inadequate blood supply: Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to the legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramps in the legs and feet while exercising. These cramps go away within a few minutes after stopping.
Nerve compression: Compression of nerves in the spine (lumbar canal stenosis) can produce pain and cramping in the legs. The pain usually worsens if one walks for a longer time. Walking in a slightly flexed position may improve symptoms.
Potassium loss: Some diuretic medications prescribed for high blood pressure cause loss of potassium. Potassium is necessary for proper nerve function and muscle contraction.
What are the symptoms?
Signs and symptoms of a muscle cramp include:
Sudden and sharp muscle pain, often in the legs
a hard lump of muscle visible beneath the skin
What is the treatment?
To reduce muscle cramps one can learn stretching exercises that can help reduce the chances of getting muscle cramps. Drinking plenty of liquids also helps. For recurrent cramps that disturb sleep, the doctor may prescribe medication like diazepam to relax muscles and decrease stiffness.
How can these be prevented?
The following steps may help prevent muscle cramps:
Avoid dehydration: Fluids help the muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. In general, drink about 10 glasses of liquids daily. The exact amount depends on the sex, diet, activity level, the weather, health, age and any medications being taken. It is important to drink at least 2 glasses of (non- carbonated beverage) liquid about 2 hours before starting physical activity.
Stretch your muscles: Stretch before and after the use of any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Stand 2 to 3 feet from a wall, placing the hands on the wall. Keep the heels on the floor. Lean toward the wall with one knee. Hold for 30 seconds. Straighten the leg. Repeat with the other knee. Stretch each leg two to three times.