A muscle cramp is a sudden contraction of one or
more of your muscles. The result can be intense pain
and an inability to use the affected muscles.
In athletes, common causes of leg cramps are
overuse, stress and dehydration during sports played
in warm weather. Overuse, injury, muscle strain or
staying in the same position also may cause cramps.
Writer's cramp affects the thumb and first two
fingers of your writing hand and is caused by using
the same muscles for long periods. At home, you can
develop hand or arm cramps spending long hours
gripping a paintbrush or using a garden tool. Other
causes may include circulatory or nerve problems.
Some cramps occur during rest. A common variety
of muscle cramp occurs in your calf muscles or toes
Signs and symptoms
symptoms of a muscle cramp include:
sharp muscle pain (spasm, contraction), often in your legs
A hard lump of
muscle tissue visible beneath your skin
of a muscle, dehydration, injury, muscle strain or simply holding a
position for prolonged periods of time may result in a muscle cramp.
Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in
warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
Muscle cramps in
your legs also can result from:
Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs
(arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp-like pain in
your legs and feet while you're exercising. These cramps go away
within a minute or two after you simply stop and stand still.
Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can
produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the
longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position — such as you
would when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you — may improve
Some diuretic medications prescribed for high blood pressure cause
loss of potassium. Potassium is necessary for proper nerve function
and muscle contraction.
cramps are also part of certain conditions such as nerve, thyroid or
hormone disorders, diabetes, hypoglycemia and anemia.
high blood pressure
When to seek medical advice
experience cramps only occasionally. These usually go away on their own
and don't require medical treatment. However, if you experience frequent
and severe muscle cramps, see your doctor.
You can usually
treat muscle cramps with self-care measures. Your doctor can discuss
with you stretching exercises that can help you reduce your chances of
getting muscle cramps. Making sure you drink plenty of liquids also can
help. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor may
prescribe diazepam (Valium) to relax muscles and decrease stiffness.
steps may help prevent cramps:
Drink plenty of liquids daily. The exact amount depends on what you
eat, your gender, your level of activity, the weather, your health,
your age and any medications you may be taking. Fluids help your
muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less
irritable. Drink fluids before any exercise activity. During the
activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and continue
drinking water or other fluids after you're finished.
Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period.
If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime.
have a cramp, these actions may provide relief:
Stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub it to help it relax. For a
calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee
slightly. If you're unable to stand, try pulling your foot back
toward your head while your leg is in a straightened position. This
will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp. For a front
thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try
pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.
Use a cold pack to relax tense muscles. Use a warm towel or heating
pad later if you have pain or tenderness, or take a hot bath.