You’re enjoying a lovely hike when suddenly it hits you: your calf gets a cramp, and the pain is severe enough that you have to stop walking. It goes away in a few minutes, but you wonder, “is there any way to prevent this from happening again?”
First, what is a muscle cramp?
A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary tightening or contracting of a muscle. It can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. It often occurs in the leg muscles, especially the calf. Some people only get leg and foot cramps during the night. While a cramp can be quite painful, they are generally harmless.
What causes them?
There are a number of causes, including:
- Completing a hard workout or physical labour
- Standing on a hard surface for a long time
- Being cold, either through cold temperatures or being in cold water
- A lack of potassium and calcium in your diet
- Being older and losing muscles mass
Can I prevent a muscle cramp?
You can improve your changes of not cramping by:
- Staying hydrated by drinking lots of water, especially when you’re physically active
- Limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake
- If you’re increasing your exercise intensity, do it slowly, adding a little more intensity each week
- Increasing your potassium and calcium by consuming foods that are rich in those minerals. For example, sweet and white potatoes and bananas are high in potassium, while dairy products, beans and lentils are high in calcium
- Stretching every day, especially when you exercise
- If you are having nighttime cramps, try a light exercise before going to bed. For example, if you have a stationary bike, try an easy five-minute ride before going to sleep. This will warm up your leg muscles, so they are more relaxed
How can I stop or end a cramp?
Different self-care treatments work for different people, so try the following and see if something works for you:
- As painful as it might be, walk around and keep using the muscle
- Stretch the muscle and massage it
- Drink water to rehydrate
- Warm the muscle with a heat pad, shower or bath; this will relax it
Do I need to see a physician?
Most muscle cramps are harmless and do go away, either on their own or with one or all of the above treatments. However, if you have one or more of the following symptoms, you should call your physician:
- Muscle cramps that:
- keep coming back
- are severe
- regularly interfere with your sleep
- don’t improve with some self-care treatment
- Your leg also swells, or the skin is red
- You don’t think there is a cause for the cramp
Under normal circumstances though, tend to the cramp and make sure it doesn’t end up cramping your style.