Muscle Cramps | What are? Causes and Remedies

By the healthiergang writer , personal trainer, athlete and student in Sports Science.

1. Muscle cramps

Muscle cramps are a phenomenon that we have all experienced at least once in our life. Muscle cramp is an involuntary and sudden contraction of the striated musculature, it manifests itself with painful twinges and tension in the affected part of the muscles which at times is unusable for a few minutes; the affected area appears hard to the touch, but does not have edema or bruising.

They most commonly occur in the limbs (with greater frequency in the thigh, calf and foot), but can also affect certain internal organs; it is for this reason that the term cramps usually refers to any spastic pain (it is quite common to hear, for example, stomach cramps).

2. What Are They?

Before being able to explain how they manifest, a distinction must be made about the types of muscle tissues that make up our body.

The Muscle Tissues

Muscle Cramps | What are? Causes and RemediesThe first important classification identifies two large groups of muscles: the voluntary muscles and the involuntary muscles, in turn defined, on the basis of histological and physiological characteristics, respectively striated or skeletal muscles and smooth muscles. Striated voluntary muscles are, as can be easily deduced from the definition, those which are crossed by evident striations and move following a voluntary act, since they are under the control of the central nervous system; the involuntary smooth ones do not have streaks, and move under the control of the vegetative nervous system which regulates the vital functions of each organism, autonomously and independently of its will, as happens precisely during digestion or breathing.

Without going further into this vast topic, we can still say that the contraction of the striated voluntary muscles, which we are dealing with in this context, occurs as a result of a nerve stimulus that triggers an electrical signal, which provides the muscle itself with chemical energy (ATP). , which in turn is transformed into mechanical and thermal energy, by means of the muscle fiber cells. This occurs in connection with an increase in calcium ions.

In the muscle contraction various minerals come into play, in addition to calcium, in particular potassium, magnesium and sodium, which must maintain a particular balance without major alterations in the reciprocal ionic concentrations, so that no changes in nerve conduction occur, which could generate an abnormal symptomatology affecting the muscular system.

The relationship between minerals is very important, as there is a relationship between their concentrations. In particular, a lack of magnesium is often associated with a deficiency of potassium; potassium in turn is related to sodium. Potassium is mainly present inside cells and very little in extracellular fluids, while sodium is normally located outside the cells, in extracellular interstitial fluids.

Significant variations in potassium (quantity of potassium present in the blood) lead to evident symptomatic manifestations, due to the importance of potassium in maintaining the membrane potential of the cells (electrical voltage of a cell, between the internal and external sides), of the muscles particularly. Potassium is therefore a mineral that works with sodium to balance the levels of liquids and electrolytes (substances present in the blood in the form of ions) in the body, and is crucial for regulating heartbeat and preventing muscle cramps.

Having said that, we understand that the hydro-saline balance of an organism is essential to avoid the appearance of muscle cramps; there are multiple situations that lead to this imbalance; intense physical activity, especially in a hot and humid environment that promotes profuse sweating with loss of salts and dehydration. Even the cold can promote the appearance of a cramp, such as immersion in cold water, for example at the sea while swimming. If you play a sport without being trained, you are very likely to experience cramps from muscle fatigue and accumulation of lactic acid. This can happen even if the sport has continued for an excessively long time. The clear example is the image of the player who collapses to the ground due to the onset of a painful cramp, especially when it comes to playing extra time.

Types of Cramps

Night cramps: these are a common problem for many people; they are called nocturnal because they typically arise during the hours of night rest. They typically affect the calf or foot muscles causing significant plantar flexion of the foot or toes. The intensity of the pain is such that they cause the subject to awaken.

Occupational cramps: (also known as occupational cramps) are disorders that have long been classified in the context of focal dystonias (in the past they were instead considered psychological disorders); focal dystonias are those syndromes characterized by prolonged muscle contractions that cause twisting, repetitive movements and / or abnormal postures. We speak of professional cramps as they generally arise on occasions of constantly repeated professional acts. The classic example is the so-called scribe's cramp, but pianist's, violinist's, typist's cramps are also known). They represent the typical manifestation of damage from constant repetition of a movement

3. Muscle Cramps: Causes

In reality, the actual cause of muscle cramps is not yet fully understood; it is certain that the cramp is not connected to a single cause, but to a predisposing set of factors; in any case, everything leads us to the presence of an electrolytic imbalance, which causes a depletion of the mineral salts involved in the contraction of the muscles, and to an imbalance in the reciprocal values; In fact, when asked whether the cramps are caused by dehydration or not; Jung (2005) shows the usefulness of an energetic and moisturizing drink, especially during an effort practiced in hot weather.

Young men repeatedly performed a calf exercise in a 37 ° C environment to cause cramps. Compared to placebo, the drink allows you to double the working time before the problem arises. The study also shows that 69% of the athletes considered suffer from cramps although well hydrated, while 46% of the dehydrated subjects did not show cramps.

Hypohydration or electrolyte deficiency is not necessarily the source of cramps. But the prolongation of the working time allowed by the drink shows that in any case these are factors that contribute to the appearance of cramps.

Sodium and Cramps

Stofan (2005) compared the sweat composition of some American professional footballers, some of whom often suffered from cramps. During a two and a half hour workout, the amount of sweat produced in the two groups is similar (about four liters). But in players prone to cramps, sweat contains twice as much sodium as in athletes who do not suffer from it; Sodium loss has been estimated to be greater than 5g in players with cramps versus 2,2g in others. The potassium losses are similar in the two groups.

Bergeron (1996) reports that in a young high-level tennis player the intake of salt has allowed the problem of cramps to be eliminated. It must be said that the tennis player lost an average of 2,5 liters of sweat per hour and that he drank only 1,8 liters of water per hour. Sodium losses amounted to more than 2 g per hour, while daily salt intake ranged from 2 to 4 g. As matches last around two hours on average, it is understandable that the player often has to leave the pitch due to cramps. It seems that the problem has been solved by bringing the daily amount of salt to 6-8g per day and improving hydration.

Creatine and Cramps

Creatine is often blamed for promoting cramps. Greenwood (2003) notes the opposite effect in some American football players who train in the heat. 47% of gamers who do not use it suffer from cramps compared to 'only' 27% of creatine users.

The study is interesting because unlike many sports where you can discover yourself in hot weather, football players absolutely cannot, which accentuates dehydration. In patients suffering from severe kidney disease, the incidence of cramps decreases by 60% in four weeks with creatine (Chang, 2002). Williams (2001) observes a rapid improvement in the cramp problem in a high-level American football player who took the equivalent of two dosers of cooking vinegar.

The Role of Nutrients

Magnesium deficiency, although widespread, is not easily detectable, since it is mostly intracellular and only 1% is present in the blood; the cause may be the poor quality of some foods, often induced by suboptimal cultivation techniques, or due to the quality of very refined and demineralized industrial foods, or due to poor dietary education, or due to physical efforts.

A magnesium deficiency, even slight, can cause manifestations such as agitation, insomnia, irritability, asthenia, palpitations, and other negative manifestations and in particular muscle stiffness and pain, up to the onset of cramps. In fact, magnesium, contained in a good percentage in striated muscles, is a very important element for the functions of the nervous system and for the physiological muscle function, as it participates in the communication process between nerve and muscle cells, and helps regulate the transmission of nerve signals. acting as a modulator of nerve impulses.

Even the B vitamins are involved in the appearance of cramps, when deficiencies occur, as these micronutrients play a fundamental role in energy production. It has been shown that inadequate levels of these vitamins can expose you to the risk of painful muscle contractures.

4. Muscle Cramps: Remedies

There are supplements specially formulated for the well-being of the muscles, particularly suitable for those who carry out strenuous and prolonged sports activities, or for those who are easily prone to cramps, or who have a deficient diet, as they contain all the vitamins and minerals useful for our body. .

Cramps and Supplements

Some plants and natural products can provide the body with the vitamin-mineral mix essential to keep the muscles in perfect shape. We mention only a few of them, as an example: Spirulina algae and Chlorella algae, very rich in all nutrients; Horsetail, due to its silicon content, which plays a leading role in facilitating the deposition of calcium, and also improves the elasticity of the connective tissues, which act as a link with the muscle bundles; Noni, containing significant quantities of mineral salts and vitamins; Acerola and Rosa canina, very rich in vitamin C, with an antioxidant action and for optimal muscle function; Wheat germ, which contains octacosanol, a substance useful for muscle elasticity and muscle strength; Brewer's Yeast, particularly rich in B vitamins.

From what we have explained it follows that, in addition to following a varied and complete diet, rich in all nutrients, in particular B vitamins and mineral salts such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, in particular situations it may be advisable to resort to specific supplements, to avoid this painful event.

Obviously the cramp should not be confused with contracture, a phenomenon also linked to muscle fatigue. The main difference is reversibility. A contracture is not reversible (heals) only in a few days, while for the cramp we are talking about fractions of an hour. Unfortunately, the confusion is total even in the insiders who recommend warming up and stretching for cramps (useful to avoid contractures) before the sporting event. Obviously it is difficult to attribute to the lack of warm-up a cramp that occurs after two hours of running!

How to avoid them?

Here are some methods:

1. Stop doing the activity that triggered the cramp.

2. Gently stretch and massage the muscle affected by the cramp, holding it in a stretched position until the cramp stops.

3. For a calf cramp, put weight on the toe, bend the knee slightly and push on the toe. If you are unable to stand, try pulling the top of the foot on the affected side towards the head while the leg is in a straightened position. This will also help relieve the cramp behind the thigh (hamstring).

4. For front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to stand and try to pull the affected side's foot towards the buttock or sit on the knees so that the glutes and hamstrings touch.

5. Apply something warm to tense muscles and ice for post-workout or post-competition muscle pain.

If the cramps are severe and occur frequently, respond poorly to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes such as strenuous exercise, a doctor should be consulted as there may be problems related to circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, drugs , or nutrition.

In addition, it is advisable to work towards achieving good general fitness. It is important to do flexibility exercises regularly to stretch the muscle groups most prone to cramps before and after training and to drink plenty of fluids while always keeping well hydrated. The exact amount of fluids also depends on the food you eat, your sex, your activity level, the weather, your health, your age and any medications you are taking. Fluids help your muscles contract, relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable.

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