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Almost everyone who has ventured into the exercise arena has experienced a muscle cramp at some time. These complaints can range from mildly uncomfortable to severely debilitating and are a great source of frustration to everyone from recreational exercisers to serious and elite athletes. Unfortunately, very little is known about the condition and how to avoid them, making it difficult to know exactly how to deal with and treat.
What is muscle cramp?
Muscle cramp’s are best described as a sudden, tight and intense pain that most commonly occurs in the muscle groups directly involved in the exercise task e.g. calf while running. They can range from a slight twinge to an excruciating pain, and may last for a few seconds or several minutes. A muscle cramp can be a one-off or occur several times before the muscle relaxes and the pain goes away.
What causes muscle cramp?
Muscle cramp’s occur when a muscle involuntary and forcibly contracts and does not relax. While this seems to be due to an abnormal stimulation of the muscle, the exact mechanism is unknown. Cramp is more likely to occur in tired muscles and ones that are already in a shortened position. Therefore, poor fitness or exercising at high workloads can increase the likelihood of muscle cramp, while poor stretching habits may also contribute.
Dehydration has for a long time been associated as a possible cause of muscle cramp. However, a number of recent studies of ultra-endurance athletes have shown no difference in the hydration status of those experiencing cramp and those that have not. Sodium is involved in initiating nerve signals that make muscles contract. While some athletes will incur large losses of sodium during exercise secondary to a high concentration of sodium in their sweat and/or high sweat losses, the evidence that this can lead to cramp is still inconclusive.
So how can I avoid muscle cramp?
- Allow adequate recovery and rest for muscles after hard training sessions.
- Increase strength and fitness. Stronger, fitter muscles are more resilient to fatigue and therefore cramp.
- Be cautious when changing speed or intensity especially during the later stages of exercise. Fatigued muscles take longer to adapt to increased workloads.
- While little evidence exists to show that dehydration is associated with muscle cramp, it is still important that athletes practice good hydration before, during and after exercise to optimise training and competition performance.
How should muscle cramp be treated?
Resting and stretching helps to decrease the muscle contraction and allow the muscle to relax. Massaging the area may also assist, while applying ice can help to relieve the pain.