A muscle cramp is defined as a “sudden, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle, or part of it…often accompanied by a palpable knotting of the muscle.” Muscle cramps usually occur in two situations, the first being exercise induced cramps, and the second being people with spinal neuropathies, such as disc degeneration or a spinal cord injury. The most common muscles affected by cramping include foot and calf muscles, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Muscle cramps may have many causes. Straining or overusing the muscle is one important cause normally found in exercise induced cramping. Hydration levels may also play a huge role in muscle cramps. While it is not the only cause, it has been proven that a dehydrated muscle is much more likely to experience cramping. Too little potassium, calcium, or magnesium (three minerals that are very important for neuromuscular function) in your diet can also contribute to muscle cramps. A balance of potassium and sodium is especially important when it comes to firing the nerve attached to the muscle. If a deficient diet or low hydration levels throws off that balance during exercise, spontaneous nerve firing may occur, leading to the sudden contraction (or cramping) of the muscle belly. And finally, compression in the lumbar spine of the nerves that lead to the muscles in the legs in the lumbar spine can lead to spontaneous cramping as well. This compression is usually due to pathology, like a bulging disc, lumbar spinal stenosis, or sciatica.
While many things can cause muscle cramps, it is important to know how to manage, prevent, and treat them. First and foremost, prevention is the best tool in avoiding muscle cramps. Proper hydration and electrolyte levels should be sustained, especially through exercise or increased activity. Diet is also key here. A well-balanced diet that includes all of the essential vitamins and minerals should be sustained. If you are worried about getting enough potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your diet, supplementation (think Vemma) of these minerals can also help prevent cramping. A dynamic warm-up should also always be performed before exercise. If and when you do experience a muscle cramp, the best thing to do is to immediately stretch the affected area. This will help release the contraction of the muscle, and shut off the nerves causing that muscle to contract. Myofascial release through foam rolling or massage can also be beneficial in the heat of a muscle cramp because it helps to release the palpable knot that often accompanies a muscle cramp.
Jenna-Leigh Damron is currently a senior at Arizona State University working on her degrees in Psychology and Exercise & Wellness. She is also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise. She says that her job as a personal training is the perfect combination of her love for the human body and her passion to help people better the quality of their lives. She also loves playing soccer and supporting her clients and watching them succeed.
"Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews."Origin and Development of Muscle Cramps :. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.