What Are Muscle Cramps?

Muscle cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions that occur in various muscles. These contractions are often painful and can affect different muscle groups. Commonly affected muscles include those in the back of your lower leg, the back of your thigh, and the front of your thigh. You may also experience cramps in your abdominal wall, arms, hands, and feet.

The intense pain of a cramp can awaken you at night or make it difficult to walk. A sudden, sharp pain, lasting from a few seconds to 15 minutes, is the most common symptom of a muscle cramp. However, in some cases, a bulging lump of muscle tissue beneath the skin can accompany a cramp as well.

Causes of Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps have several causes. Some cramps result from overuse of your muscles. This typically occurs while you are exercising.

Muscle injuries and dehydration can also trigger cramps. Dehydration is the excessive loss of fluids in the body. Low levels of calcium and potassium may also cause muscle cramps, since both minerals contribute to healthy muscle function.

Low blood supply to your legs and feet can cause cramping in those areas when you exercise, walk, or participate in physical activities.

In some cases, a medical condition can cause muscle cramps. These conditions include:

  • spinal nerve compression, which can cause muscle cramps in your legs when walking or standing
  • alcoholism
  • pregnancy
  • kidney failure
  • hypothyroidism (low thyroid gland function)

Other times, the cause of muscle cramps is unknown.

Diagnosing Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps are usually harmless and do not require medical attention. However, you should see a doctor if your muscle cramps are severe, do not improve with stretching, or persist for a long time. This could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

To learn the cause of muscle cramps, your doctor will perform a physical examination. He or she may ask you questions, such as:

  • How often do muscle cramps occur?
  • Which muscles are affected?
  • Do you take any medications?
  • Do you drink alcohol?
  • What are your exercise habits?
  • How much liquid do you drink on a daily basis?

Your doctor will also run a blood test to check the levels of potassium and calcium in your blood, as well as your kidney and thyroid function. Your doctor may also do a pregnancy test.

He or she may also order an electromyography— a test that measures muscle activity and checks for muscle abnormalities—or a myelography—an imaging tool that creates a picture of your spinal cord.

How to Treat Muscle Cramps

To ease pain from muscle cramps, you can apply a hot or cold compress to your sore muscles at the first sign of a spasm. You can use a hot cloth, a heating pad, a cold cloth, or ice.

If your pain does not improve, try taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. It may also help to gently stretch the sore muscles.

Muscle cramps can interrupt your sleep. If this happens, talk to your doctor about a prescription muscle relaxer. This medication helps relax your muscles and calm spasms.

If you have an underlying medical condition, discuss treatment options with your doctor. Controlling the underlying cause of muscle cramps can improve your symptoms and ease spasms. For example, if low calcium or potassium levels are triggering cramps, your doctor may recommend supplements.

How to Prevent Muscle Cramps

The simplest way to prevent muscle cramps is to avoid or limit the exercises that strain your muscles and cause cramps.

You can take steps to prevent muscle cramps. It is important to stretch or warm up before participating in sports and exercising. Failure to warm up can result in muscle strain and injury.

Make sure to drink enough liquid to avoid dehydration. Your body loses more water when physically active, so increase your liquid intake when you exercise.

Talk to your doctor about taking a vitamin supplement to ensure that your body receives the necessary supply of nutrients and minerals. You can also increase your calcium and potassium intake naturally by eating foods such as milk, bananas, and orange juice.