Muscle Cramps and Spasms
What causes muscle cramps and spasms? Plus muscle cramp treatment, prevention and stretching guidelines.
by Brad Walker | First Published January 23, 2017 | Updated March 6, 2019
- The lower leg and calf muscles.
- The upper leg, including both the hamstrings and quadriceps.
- The feet and hands.
What is a Muscle Cramp?
Muscle cramps and muscle spasms are an annoying condition that involves a sudden, involuntary contraction and tightening of a muscle that will not immediately relax.
Muscle cramps and spasms can range in intensity from a slight twitch to a severe, agonizing contraction. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to over 15 minutes and can usually be seen visibly by the way the muscle twitches and moves under the skin.
People who are at the greatest risk of muscle cramps and spasms are those who are ill, overweight or unfit. Those who take drugs or certain medication, and those who live or work in excessive heat and humidity are also prone to cramping. Muscle cramps are also common among endurance athletes and people over 65 years of age who perform strenuous physical activity.
What Causes Muscle Cramps and Spasms?
There are a number of factors that contribute to muscle cramps and spasms, the main ones being:
- Intense physical effort;
- Muscle fatigue, exhaustion and overuse;
- Working or exercising in high heat and humidity;
- Electrolyte and mineral depletion;
- Poor flexibility and tight muscles;
- Muscle strain or injury;
- Poor blood circulation;
- Excessive use of alcohol or drugs; and
- As a side effect of certain medications.
Treating Muscle Cramps and Spasms
Muscle cramps and spasms will usually go away on their own but there are a few important steps you can take to decrease the severity and duration of them.
- Stop the activity that triggered the cramp in the first place.
- Gently stretch the effected muscle or muscle group.
- Keep the effected areas moving with light activity and gentle massage.
- Continue to apply heat and massage to help promote blood flow.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps and Spasms
Now that you know what causes cramps and spasms, and how to treat them when you do get them, let’s look at 4 key things you can do to prevent muscle cramps and spasms from happening in the first place. Prevention IS better than cure.
1. General health and fitness
One of the most useful things you can do to help prevent muscle cramps and spasms is to work on improving your overall general health and fitness. Improving your cardiovascular fitness will improve the delivery of blood to your muscles, which will ensure that they receive adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrients to function properly. Also improving the strength and conditioning of your muscles will help to make them more resilient against fatigue and exhaustion.
Another important activity that is very effective in helping to prevent muscle cramps and spasms is ensuring adequate hydration and electrolyte replenishment. In general you should be consuming at least 8 to 10 glasses of filtered water a day and more if you’re involved in strenuous physical activity or live and work in high heat and humidity. And stop drinking coffee.
3. Minerals and electrolytes
If you seem to be prone to muscle cramps and muscle spasms you should also look at increasing your intake of minerals and electrolytes. The minerals that are most important are Potassium, Sodium, Calcium and Magnesium. Consuming a good quality sports drink or adding a small amount of mineral salt to your cooking, (such as Celtic sea salt) will help to increase your intake of these important minerals.
The other key activity that will help to prevent muscle cramps and spasms is stretching. Keeping your muscles loose and flexible will help to stop them from tightening up and cramping. Be sure to stretch the muscle groups that are most prone to cramping both before and after exercise or strenuous physical activity.
Research and References
- Miller, K. Stone, M. Huxel, K. Edwards, J. (2010). Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health, 2(4), 279-283.
- Miller, K. (2018). The Evolution of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramp Research. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Volume 22 – Issue 4 – p 6–8.
- Wilkerson, R. (2017). Muscle Cramps. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019). Muscle Cramp. Mayo Clinic.
About the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.