by Amber Belt, ND
We are in full swing summer, which generally means full swing muscle cramp season! I get a number of questions in my practice and on social media about muscle cramps. Today, I’d like to help you prevent and get rid of muscle cramps so that you and your muscles can have a more enjoyable summer.
What causes muscle cramps?
There can be many reasons that cramps happen, but I’m going to go over two of the most common causes of cramps. My hope is that teaching you why you cramp will help you avoid future cramping episodes as best as you possibly can.
It’s hot outside and in Northern Arizona, it’s easy to sweat a lot and not realize it because our sweat evaporates so quickly. Most of us who live in the high desert understand the importance of water, but the importance of electrolytes can be overlooked.
When we sweat, especially when we sweat profusely and for a long period of time, we create a deficit of electrolytes. The most notable electrolyte losses when it comes to muscle cramping are sodium and chloride. Sound familiar? It should! Sodium chloride is what we all know as salt. We also lose other electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium when we sweat.
With these electrolyte losses and dehydration, our body compensates by moving fluid from muscle tissue into our blood vessels in order to protect the vascular system and heart. This leaves our muscles with less fluid within the muscle cells themselves. The remaining fluid doesn’t have the proper proportion of electrolytes or fluid to maintain normal muscle function.
This concentrated and depleted fluid that remains in the muscle cells disrupts the normal electrical input to our muscle cells. This abnormal fluid can cause the nerve that controls muscle contractions to erratically fire. If enough of these nerves begin to fire many muscle cells will contract, which results in cramping.
Cramping from electrolyte depletion will often start with small twitches in muscles (usually leg muscles) and progress to full on muscle cramps. These types of cramps can even persist after we’re done sweating if the fluid imbalance isn’t corrected. And, with this type of cramping, it’s not limited to the muscles that are being used. Any muscle can cramp when electrolytes are imbalanced.
If you start to notice the little muscle twitches that come before the big cramp it’s smart to drink a rapidly absorbed, highly concentrated electrolyte beverage. Getting electrolytes on board will often provide relief rather quickly. The concentrated electrolytes can be followed with a more diluted electrolyte drink. Additionally, gentle massage may help the twitching or cramping muscles to relax while the electrolytes are doing their thing on a cellular level.
Yeah, it’s hot in the summer and we like to blame all of cramps on heat. But a lot of cramps happen due to muscle fatigue. I see a lot of muscle cramping in people who are doing the Weekend Warrior thing and overusing muscles that have not seen a lot of use on a daily basis. However, cramps can happen even in fit athletes if they are overexerting themselves.
On a cellular level, these types of cramps happen when the neuromuscular balance of the muscle fibers becomes imbalanced. The excitatory input to the muscle that causes the muscle to contract overwhelms the inhibitory input to the muscle. Without the proper balance to inhibit the muscle’s contraction, contracting (aka cramping) is all the muscle can do. Ouch!
When cramping happens due to fatigue, the cramp will be limited to the muscle or muscles that have been overused and are now overly fatigued. The best remedy for these cramps when they do happen is stretching and gentle massage to the muscle that has been affected.
If you are deconditioned (out of shape), if you don’t stretch and lack mobility, and/or if you overexercise…watch out! You are more likely to get muscle cramps due to fatigue.
There are many other conditions that can lead to muscle cramping. If your cramping isn’t due to electrolyte imbalance or fatigue you need to see a medical professional to dig deeper and get to the cause of your cramps.
Muscle cramps may indicate a more serious problem and be caused by lack of blood flow to a muscle or compression of the nerves that feed a muscle. It’s also not uncommon for cramping to be a side effect of a medication, so scrutinizing prescription and over the counter medications may be needed if cramping is happening.