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Muscle Cramps from Exercise

What are muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps are painful involuntary spasms of muscles that occur during or immediately after exercise. Muscle cramps can occur almost anywhere on the body and often develop after prolonged or intense use of muscles.

How do muscle cramps occur?

The cause of muscle cramps is not known. One theory is that exercise causes the body to lose too much fluid and salt through sweating. This leads to cramping and is called heat cramps.

A newer theory is that vigorous exercise causes the brain to send constant signals through the nerves to the muscles to contract (tighten). The longer muscles get signals to contract, the harder it is for the muscles to relax. Tired muscles are easily excited and lose some of their ability to rest. Without the balance between contracting and relaxing, muscles can cramp.

What are the symptoms?

Cramping pain often occurs in muscles of the arms, legs, and abdomen. Pain can get worse with continued activity and you may not be able to relax the muscle without help. You may also feel tired and sweat heavily. Cramping is often quite painful and can force athletes to stop play.

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider will examine you. At the time of cramping, muscles feel firm and tense and may be tender to touch.

How is it treated?

  • Treat the cramping muscle with passive stretching. For instance, if your calf muscles are cramping, stretch the calf by pulling your foot toward you while your knee is straight.
  • You should rest the cramping muscles.
  • Be sure that you are well hydrated and replace the salt lost through sweat. Over the years cramps have been treated with many different remedies including water, electrolyte sports drinks, supplements containing electrolytes, minerals or amino acids, as well as pickle juice or mustard.

When can I return to my sport or activity?

You may return to your sport or activity when you have full range of motion and strength without cramping. You should replace lost fluids and salt prior to further activity. Return to sport or activity too soon may result in the rapid return of muscle cramps.

How can I prevent exercise associated muscle cramps?

To help prevent cramps, stretch before you exercise. You may also want to stretch during breaks in activity. Make sure you drink enough fluids. Sports drinks may be very helpful. Resting between periods of intense exercise may increase your chances of avoiding cramps.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-30
Last reviewed: 2011-06-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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