If you’ve ever had a muscle cramp, you know how painful they can be especially when it strikes when you least expect it. Ouch! A very common question that we get is ‘how do I stop cramps?’ Most people think that dehydration or heat causes cramps and we’ve all seen the ‘magic remedy’ like magnesium, pickle juice or electrolyte replacement drinks. But do these work and is that the real cause?
Cramps…what are they?
A muscle cramp is a painful involuntary contraction of a muscle that happens suddenly. We have all had one! Exercise associated cramps are the most common and often happen during vigorous sport or physical activity. Night cramps and pregnancy cramps are also quite common and are not typically related to any physical activity. The hamstrings, calves and foot muscles are the most common muscles to cramp.
What causes muscle cramps?
The causes of night cramps and pregnancy cramps are not fully understood, but some known causes are:
- Holding a certain position for a long time
- Excess or repetitive activity during the day or increased work by muscles
- Change in neuromuscular function
- Nerve compression
- Compressed blood vessels
- Metabolic and hormone imbalances
Most of these causes can be addressed by your GP or physiotherapist. Make sure you seek advice if you are unsure.
There are TONS of theories and myths about why cramps happen during exercise. Recent research has debunked a lot of what we used to think about cramps.
We traditionally blamed the following for muscle cramps:
- Waste product accumulation
- Electrolyte depletion
- Loss of fluids
- Extreme heat
Studies have shown that even without the above factors, athletes still suffered from cramps. Now don’t get me wrong, these factors definitely have a role to play in cramping and SHOULD be addressed… but they are not the SOLE cause of cramps.
So if not, then what is?
Neuromuscular FATIGUE has been shown to be the only common factor in studies researching exercise induced muscle cramps. Put simply, muscles cramp when they have been overworked and fatigued. This can happen for a number of reasons including:
- Muscle overcompensation
- Muscle overuse – repetitive, strenuous activity
- Inadequate preparation – when game day loads significantly exceed training loads
- Inadequate recovery – sleep, nutrition, mental and physical rest
- Inadequate muscular conditioning
So…it is often more than one factor that causes cramps, but the common theme is fatigue.
How can I stop a muscle cramp if it happens in bed or on the field?
Stretching is the best way to immediately stop a cramp in its tracks when it happens. This may not stop it forever or prevent it from happening again, but it will get rid of the nasty pain and relax the muscle.
How can I prevent muscle cramps while I’m exercising?
The bottom line is that muscle cramps likely have multiple causes including neuromuscular fatigue as an umbrella cause. If we understand that it can be a number of factors, addressing these factors is going to be more effective in the long term than just drinking magnesium or pickle juice.
Remember, there is no magic bullet…unfortunately. But here’s what you can do…
- Train at game day intensity – this will prepare you for the strenuous activity and reduce your fatigue on the field
- Game day nutrition – water, electrolytes and carbohydrates can help, even if it may not prevent it, it can delay your cramps
- Address any compensations – for example if your hamstring is overcompensating for your weak glutes, it will lead to increased fatigue of your hamstring
- Adequate rest and recovery – avoid overtraining and give your body the time to recover through good sleep, post training nutrition, rest days etc.
- Improve muscle conditioning – prepare your body well for the demands of your sport. This is why preseason training is imperative. Read our blog on how to best prepare yourself. If you tend to cramp in your calves for example, work on conditioning your calves in the gym.
Using these strategies can help to reduce the symptoms and onset of cramps:
- Dry needling
- Mental relaxation techniques
- Compression garments
- Address underlying imbalances – magnesium, fluids, electrolytes
Does pickle juice work?
Pickle juice has been a popular addition to sports kits over the last few years. Other than tasting really bad (unless you love pickles) pickle juice works to quickly stimulate receptors in the mouth which sends a signal to the central nervous system to downregulate and reduce or stop a cramp. This supports the idea that cramps have a nervous system involvement rather than simply an electrolyte imbalance. Sounds great right? Not everybody benefits from this though and it doesn’t actually prevent cramps, but it has been shown to be effective immediately after drinking it, so if it works for you on the spot… drink away! And if you are game enough, give it a try!
If you suffer from cramps regularly, contact Revive Physio on (03) 9391-2600 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a full assessment.