Whether you’re a fitness guru or a couch potato, you’ve no doubt suffered from cramps at some point – those uncontrollable, painful muscle twitches and spasms that can bring you to your knees.
Leg cramps are among the most common cramps, especially in the foot or calf. They generally settle down by themselves after a few seconds or, if you’re unlucky, a few minutes. If you get cramps often or they are very severe, speak to your GP. In the meantime, here is what you need to know to handle the occasional – but painful – cramp.
What causes cramps?
While the exact cause of cramps is unknown, there are some clear risk factors.
They include conditions that relate to being out of shape, such as:
• Tight, inflexible muscles
• Poor physical condition
• Poor muscle tone
• Inadequate diet
Pushing your body too far can also be a risk factor, so watch out for:
• Physical overexertion
• Mineral and electrolyte imbalance
• Muscle injury
• Muscle fatigue
Certain medical conditions and their side effects can also increase the likelihood of cramps, including:
• Excessive sweating
• Dehydration caused by something like a bout of gastroenteritis
• Reduced blood supply to the heart, clinically labelled “ischaemia”
• Sciatica, which is common in pregnancy
• Specific medications, such as fluid pills (diuretics)
• Underlying medical problems, such as atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries)
How can I treat a cramp?
There are things you can do straight away to ease a sudden cramp.
• STOP When the cramp strikes and rest the muscle until it subsides.
• STRETCH If the pain is hard to tolerate, gently stretch the muscle that has cramped.
If the cramp is in your calf, try this: stand with the tips of your toes on the edge of a step, with your heels hanging over, and gently drop your
heels down so that you can feel a stretch in your muscles.
• MASSAGE Lightly massage the muscle to ease the contraction.
• HOT OR COLD Apply an ice pack or a heat pack to the affected area to help the muscle relax, easing the pain.
• MEDICATION In some cases, medication may help with persistent cramps. See your GP for advice.
How can I prevent a cramp?
While you can never completely safeguard yourself against future cramps, there are a few things you can do to lessen your chances of getting painful spasms:
• Increase your muscle fitness – stronger muscles are more resistant to fatigue and therefore less likely to seize up
• Rest your muscles, particularly after a hard game or gym session
• Keep yourself hydrated, especially on hot days
• Do yoga or some simple stretches each day to increase the flexibility of your muscles
• Treat yourself to a massage when your body feels too tight – tight muscles can lead to tears and cramps
• Make sure your vitamin and mineral levels are where they should be – there is some evidence that low levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium can increase your chances of cramping.
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