Cramps can range from mild and annoying, to painful and disruptive. Discover what exactly cramps are, who might get them and what you can do about them.
What are cramps?
A cramp is a sudden, sharp sensation which can seem to strike our muscles out of nowhere. The pain we feel is caused by the muscle contracting and releasing sharply. This is also known as a spasm – an involuntary motion which we don’t have control over as it’s happening.
The affected muscle will feel hard to touch as it cramps and might feel ‘locked’ in position.
Usually, cramps only last a short time – less than 15 minutes and often just for a few seconds.
Cramps can technically occur in any muscle group. However, there are certain muscle groups where cramps are most common. These include the legs, particularly the calves. Cramps can also occur in the hands, feet and neck.
The muscles of the abdomen are also prone to cramps, particularly in women during the menstrual cycle.
What causes cramps?
Cramps could have various different causes. The most common are:
- Exercising – simply using your muscles can cause them to cramp. Muscle strain and over-use of a particular muscle group are common side-effects of working out and playing sports. Further, cramps are common if you’re not usually very active and participate in a strenuous activity such as running.
- Imbalance – a mineral imbalance might result in cramps, for instance low levels of potassium or magnesium in the body, although more research is needed.1
- Dehydration – loss of fluid and sodium, such as during exercise, is thought to make you susceptible to muscle cramps due to the resulting electrolyte imbalance. This is a theory, and again, more research is needed.2
- Medication – certain medications, such as diuretics (water tablets), statins and beta-blockers, are known to increase the occurrence of muscle cramps.3
- Poor circulation – not getting enough blood flow to a limb can cause the muscles in it to cramp.
- The menstrual cycle – period cramps are extremely common with nearly all women experiencing them at some time. They occur in the abdomen or lower back and are caused by the contracting of the womb in order to shed the womb’s lining.
- Laxatives – taking ‘stimulant’ laxatives cause the intestinal walls to contract and relax, which helps stimulate a bowel movement but can cause discomfort in your tummy area in the process.
What can help get rid of them?
There are a few things you can try to seek relief from the discomfort of cramps.
Stretching has benefits for everyone, regardless of their level of activity.
Since the legs are most prone to cramping, concentrate on warming up these major muscle groups first. You can perform these stretches before exercise, or while you’re actively experiencing a leg cramp. Bear in mind you’re more likely to get cramps from exercise if you didn’t stretch your muscles beforehand.
Calf & hamstring stretch
From a standing position, and with your right heel on the floor, pull your toes towards you and hold for a few seconds. You should feel a gentle pull at the back of your calf. Raising the leg off the floor a few inches will also stretch your hamstring (along the back of your thigh). Repeat with the left leg.
To stretch the front of your thigh (the quadricep muscle), stand up straight and hold your right foot with your right hand against the back of your right thigh (or as near as you can comfortably hold it). Hold for a few seconds and repeat with the left leg.
If these moves feel painful or tender, that’s a sign you need to take it slow and spend more time performing gentle stretches before doing anything more strenuous.
If a leg cramp strikes in the night, try lying flat on your back and slowly pulling your toes back so your heels are pressing into the mattress and your toes are pointing at the ceiling. Repeat a few times. Then pull your knees towards your chest and hold for a few moments. This will give the cramping muscles a gentle stretch and get blood flowing to the muscle groups in the legs.
A simple self-massage can provide relief for most cramps and muscle spasms. For cramps in the calf area, sit on a chair with the affected leg resting on another chair, coffee table or something of a similar height. Starting at your heel and using long strokes, sweep your hand up the back of your calf, pressing into the calf muscle with your thumbs using medium pressure.
If the muscle is actively spasming and feels hard to touch, rest the area until the spasm has subsided slightly before massaging.
Sometimes cramps can be eased by the application of heat. A heating pad such as a microwaveable rice bag (not too hot) can be placed on the cramp to relax tensed muscles.
As cramps have been linked to dehydration, staying hydrated may help to avoid them especially when exercising. Six to eight glasses (about 1.2 litres) per day is what the NHS recommends.4
Although scientists aren’t certain about the connection between diet and the likelihood of muscle cramps, they have been linked to low levels of calcium, potassium and magnesium. Therefore, a diet rich in these minerals might help defend you against them. This means eating a balanced diet including fruit and vegetables, legumes, avocados, nuts, and whole grains.
Last updated: 27 May 2020
- Bergeron M. Muscle cramps during exercise: is it fatigue or electrolyte deficit?Curr Sports Med Rep. 2008;7:S50-S55