Muscle Cramps

The Best Way to Treat Muscle Cramps

Picture the following scenario: After a busy week, you’ve finally made it to the gym. You’re in the middle of a great workout, you’ve got a good sweat going, you’re doing your part to get ready for (gulp) swimsuit season—and suddenly a muscle cramp threatens to derail your efforts. Why is this happening – and what do you do about it? 

Do you work it out, or stop your workout?

Let’s start with what a muscle cramp actually is—an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that will not relax. They occur most frequently in our extremities, especially the legs and feet, and particularly the calves. “Muscle cramps are extremely common,” says Mark Schwartz, MD, co-medical director of Virtua’s Sports Medicine Program. “Almost everyone experiences a cramp at some point in their life. They’re more common in adults than children, and they tend to increase in frequency as one ages.”

While there are several causes of muscle cramps, one of the most common is the vigorous use of a muscle. These cramps can happen either during or after exercise, sometimes even hours later. They cause a visible and palpable hardening of the muscle involved. The cramp can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes; it can involve an entire muscle group or just a portion of one muscle. Soreness and swelling can occur after the cramp subsides.

Some well-documented risk factors for muscle cramps include:

  • Dehydration
  • Hyperventilation
  • A sudden increase in activity level
  • Low blood calcium, magnesium, and/or potassium levels
  • Vitamin deficiencies (particularly vitamins B1, B5 and B6)
  • Some medications, including diuretics and cholesterol-lowering statins.

A muscle cramp is usually very painful; the natural response is to stop the activity that’s caused it, and according to Dr. Schwartz that’s exactly what you should do. “You really can’t use a particular muscle when it’s cramping,” he says. “You need to stop your workout until it resolves.”

Treatment and prevention for muscle cramps are often the same—proper hydration and thorough stretching.

Before engaging in physical exercise, hydration is essential. Dr. Schwartz recommends drinking water or electrolyte drinks at least an hour before working out, as “you don’t want the fluid in your stomach, you want it in your system.” Hydrating in this manner will help to prevent potential cramps. If you haven’t had enough to drink before working out and then you experience a muscle cramp, taking a water break is also a good idea and will help the cramp to resolve more quickly.

The same goes for stretching—it’s best to stretch your muscles thoroughly before as well as after a workout, and stretching the affected muscle tends to be the first and best treatment once a cramp hits.

As to whether you can hop right back on the treadmill? “Once you recover, and you’ve addressed the issue that’s causing the cramp, there’s no reason not to resume your activities,” says Dr. Schwartz.

If your discomfort is not so easily resolved, however, you should seek medical attention. “Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But one should see a doctor if the cramps cause severe discomfort, happen frequently, don’t improve with self-care, or aren’t associated with an obvious cause.”

Updated June 26, 2017

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