The leg muscles are formed by bundles of fibers that contract and expand alternately to produce movement. A cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction (tension) of one of these muscles, usually in the calf. The cramps can last from a few seconds to several minutes. They can be mild or intense enough to wake you from deep sleep. A sudden and painful muscle spasm in the leg is called charley horse, whose legend says it is named after baseball player Charlie "Hoss" Radbourn, who reportedly suffered frequent cramps in the 1880s.
Sometimes there is no obvious cause for a cramp. Exercise is a common trigger, especially after exercising for a long period of time or in the heat. Muscles that are tired or dehydrated become irritated and more likely to suffer from cramping. A deficiency of electrolytes such as magnesium or potassium in your diet can cause more frequent cramps, preventing your muscles from completely relaxing. The risk of a cramp increases during pregnancy, possibly due to circulatory changes and increased tension in the muscles due to the growth of the abdomen. Age is another factor, with cramps becoming more frequent in middle age and beyond. Older muscles tire more easily and become increasingly sensitive to low volumes of fluid in the body. Cramps can also be a side effect of medications such as statins, which are used to treat high cholesterol.
Symptoms of muscle cramps
They can include:
Sudden pain and tightness in a muscle, usually in the calf.
A temporary hard lump or spasms under the skin
Diagnosis of muscle cramps
You should be able to treat a cramp on your own, but consult a doctor if your cramps are severe, present frequently or have other symptoms (such as numbness or weakness) along with them. Rarely, cramps may indicate a problem with the spine, blood vessels or liver.
Muscle cramp treatment
Most cramps will disappear on their own in a few seconds or minutes. Stretching or massaging the muscle will help you relax. The heat calms tense muscles. Apply a heating pad or a warm damp towel to help loosen the muscle.
To avoid leg cramps in the future, drink plenty of fluids before and during exercise. Muscles need fluid to contract and relax properly. Prevent tension by warming the leg muscles before training with a bit of walking or slow jogging. After each workout, stretch your leg muscles for a few minutes. Do other stretches before going to bed if you tend to have cramps while sleeping. For cramps that are especially severe, frequent or harmful to sleep, a prescribed muscle relaxant such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), metaxalone (Skelaxin) or metocarbamol (Robaxin) may help.
Image: photocheaper / Getty Images
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