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Making Those Painful Spasms Go Away

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— October 2, 2017

Making Those Painful Spasms Go Away

  • Muscle cramps might not be the end of the world, but they can mean another night’s sleep down the can. A few tricks can help make these go away.
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You’ve been moving since 6 a.m., including a hard gym session after a long workday, and now you can finally crash. You’ve just about gotten into bed, stretched out, and… Owww! All of a sudden it feels like someone has tied your calf into a giant knot—for the second night this week. You hop out, cursing under your breath, and wonder if anything can keep your legs from attacking you like this. Muscle cramps might not be the end of the world, but they can mean another night’s sleep down the can. “A cramp in the calf, commonly called a ‘charley horse,’ is the most prevalent kind,” says Marc Leavey, MD, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Cramps, though, can occur anywhere.

Cramp Culprits

Finding what causes persistent cramping may take detective work. Exercise can result in the buildup of lactic acid in muscles from overexertion while overstretching muscles can cause them to go into spasm. On the other hand, inactivity—such as sitting too long in an airplane or car—can cause cramps. (Excessive sitting can also lead to deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the legs that can travel to the lungs.) Dehydration from sweating too much, not getting enough fluids or medications such as diuretics can induce cramps, as can circulatory problems, diabetes or hypothyroidism. Nutrition can also play a role. An imbalance in the minerals that control muscle contraction and relaxation— calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium—may induce cramping.

Easing the Ache

When it comes to alleviating cramps, “what works for one person may not work for another. It’s an individual process,” says Greg Sperber, MD, of Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego. For many people, rubbing or massaging the muscle at the first sign of a cramp helps. Flexing your foot toward your knee and stretching your leg may also help. Walk, if you can, or stand on tiptoes. A warm towel or heating pad may relax the muscle; some people have better results applying a cool towel. Willow bark and ginger can help you deal with continuing soreness, as well as topical arnica. A warm bath with Epsom salts soothes sore muscles; you can add a few drops of ginger, lavender or birch essential oil.

Making Muscles Happy

The best way to deal with cramps is to avoid them. “Preventing cramps is an individual process, but increasing awareness of your body is important— when you’re tight do something to relax,” Sperber says. Be sure to stay properly hydrated, especially when exercising or traveling. Some trainers report that pickle juice relieves cramps faster than plain water. The theory is that it replaces sodium lost during exertion and lessens dehydration, thus alleviating cramping. Sea salt in water provides not only sodium but a variety of trace minerals as well. Eat foods rich in potassium and magnesium, such as bananas. Studies have shown that supplemental magnesium (often combined with calcium) can help. Vitamin D deficits have also been linked to cramping, as have insufficient amounts of vitamins B1, B5, and B6. In addition, some people have found vitamin E to be helpful. Avoid overexertion by shortening workouts; wear loose clothing that won’t restrict blood flow. It’s also a good idea to perform gentle stretches in the evening. For example, you can stand with your toes on one step of a stairway and lower only your heels (be sure to steady yourself). Or stand two or three feet from a wall with one foot close to the wall. Lean forward, place your forearms against the wall and straighten your rear knee, keeping the heel on the floor. Hold at least 10 seconds; switch legs and repeat. At night, avoid tight bedclothes that can bend toes downward and trigger cramps. Increase flexibility with yoga or tai chi, or ride a stationary bike for a few minutes shortly before bedtime. And ditch the high heels, which point the toes down, and flip-flops, which don’t provide support. To lessen thigh cramps, drink plenty of fluids and move around as much as possible when in confined spaces, such as an airplane cabin. Avoid foot cramps by shifting weight every 10 minutes when standing. “A sudden hard movement, such as jamming brakes on your car, could also trigger a foot cramp,” Leavey says. Most cramps improve with rest and time. Staying hydrated and stretched out—and eating properly—can help keep them from coming back.

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