Muscle cramps are a very common muscle problem. This is the abrupt, involuntary contractions or spasms in or more of the muscles of the body, oftentimes occurring after exercise or during rest.It may last for as short as a few seconds to several minutes. One of the main causes of muscle cramps is malfunction of the nerves, which in turn may be brought about by a health problem. Almost everyone will experience/ has experienced a muscle cramp at some point in their lives.
Background of muscle cramps
These muscles alternately contract and relax during movement. When the muscles involuntarily contracts, it is in spasm. Forceful and sustained spasms become cramps. It is fairly common for cramps to return multiple times until it is resolved. The most common muscle cramps occur in the extremities, particularly the legs and feet, especially the calf. However, forceful cramps may also occur in involuntary muscles such as those in the organs (uterus, bile, urine passages, bowels, etc.). This article will focus on skeletal or voluntary muscle cramps.
Types and causes of muscle cramps
There are four types of skeletal muscle cramps. They are differentiated according to their causes and the affected muscle groups. These are: true cramps, tetany, contractures and dystonic cramps.
(1) True cramps
- Commonest type of skeletal muscle cramps
- Part or all of a single or cluster of muscles that act together (muscles involved in flexing adjacent fingers)
- Cause: nerve hyperexcitability that stimulate muscles
- Injury: recurring muscle spasms as a defense mechanism succeeding an injury (e.g. broken bones)
- Vigorous activity: active use of muscles and muscle fatigues such as in sports
- Rest cramps: also called nocturnal cramps as they occur usually at night, with no actual cause
- Dehydration: excessive fluid loss due to perspiration such as in physical activities
- Shifts in body fluids: inadequate distribution of body fluids
- Low calcium, magnesium and potassium in the blood
- Caused by release of tetanus toxin on the nerves
- All neurons in the body are activated resulting to muscle stimulation and later, spasms
- Incapability of muscle to relax for a prolonged period
- Disallows muscle fibers from relaxing
(4) Dystonic cramps
- More infrequent as compared to true cramps
- Muscles unnecessary for intended movement begin to contract
Symptoms of muscle cramps
- Sharp pain on affected muscle
- If severe, swelling and soreness
- Bulging muscles, which feel firm and tender
Treatment for muscle cramps
- Stop or remove self the vigorous activity
- Stretch and massage firmly but gently the affected muscle/s. Keep the muscle in stretched position until cramping ceases.
- Heat may be applied, using a heating pad, to the tight or tense muscles. Moist heat is proven to be more effective than dry heat. Moreover, heat should never be applied directly. While cold may be applied to tender or sore muscles.
- If cramps persist for a prolonged period of time, seek medical help.
Muscle cramps do not usually require medical attention as they typically disappear on their own. However, it is necessary to relieve the cramping muscles to alleviate pain. First aid classes teach the proper treatment for muscle cramps and various other muscles-related injuries.