A muscle cramp is a sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle. This type of pain is most commonly experienced in the legs, and therefore it is often called a leg cramp or a "charley horse." Leg cramps occur when a muscle suddenly and forcefully contracts. The most common muscles to contract in this manner are muscles that cross two separate joints. These muscles include the calf (crossing the ankle and knee), the hamstring (crossing the knee and hip), and the quadriceps (also crossing the knee and hip). Leg cramps usually last less than one minute but at times they may last several minutes before the contraction subsides.
What causes a leg cramp?
- The exact cause of a leg cramp is not well understood, but there are some factors that are thought to contribute to this condition:
- Nutritional Deficiency (especially a lack of Magnesium)
- Exercising an unfit muscle
- High weight (not necessarily obesity)
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Medications (statins, prednisone, others...)
How can leg cramps be prevented?
It is not well known exactly how dehydration and muscle cramping are related. However, it is known that dehydration can predispose to leg cramps. To prevent this from occurring, drink at least three full glasses of water each day, including one before bedtime. It is also important to drink plenty of fluid before, during, and after exercising.
Supplement your Diet
In our office we have had great success with patients taking Magnesium Citrate. A typical dosage (one pill/day) can range from 250 mg to 350 mg / day. Although it is very rare, Magnesium can interfere with prescription medications. For this reason, please consult a doctor before starting any supplements.
Here I go again talking about stretching. Stretching can relax muscle fibers. It is very important to have a good post-work out stretching routine because this helps relax muscles and prevent cramps. Also be sure to cool down after exercising and do not exercise vigorously just prior to sleep.
It is important to ease your way into an exercise routine. It is better to gradually build up an exercise program and try to avoid sudden increases in activity. Sudden changes in activities can lead to leg cramps. The "10% Rule" is a good rule of thumb: Never increase your exercise over one week by more than 10% compared to the week before.
When do I need to have leg cramps evaluated by a doctor?
You should be evaluated by your doctor if leg cramps become a persistent and recurring problem. Since electrolyte imbalances can cause cramping, your doctor can analyze your blood to ensure that the levels of magnesium, potassium, and other electrolytes are normal. Muscle relaxing medications can also be prescribed if muscle cramping is a problem, particularly at night. Finally, it is smart to consult a doctor because your medications and medical history should be reviewed in order to investigate possible factors that may be contributing to your leg cramps.