We’ve all experienced it: A quad muscle that seizes up while playing pickleball, a foot that starts to tighten during yoga or a calf muscle that suddenly spasms while lying in bed. Muscle cramps are no fun. There are various types of muscle cramps, Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) and nocturnal (nighttime) cramps, being the most common. EAMC are defined by a sudden and involuntary muscle contraction which is often painful.
“Cramps can happen anytime but are more likely to happen during exercise and at night, and are usually in the leg muscle,” said Parwana Schell, PT, MPT, from Samaritan Physical Rehabilitation Specialists - Corvallis.
According to Schell, cramps also become more common as you age, with more people over age 50 reporting the condition.
A muscle cramp at night can be annoying, especially if it wakes you up.
“Quality sleep is important for your overall health, so if muscle cramps are regularly keeping you from getting enough sleep, that is something to discuss with your provider,” Schell said.
Nighttime leg cramps can be more common in pregnant women, but the condition usually goes away after the baby is born. If you have trouble sleeping because of a need to move your legs at night, it could be restless legs syndrome, a sleep disorder.
What to Do About a Muscle Cramp in the Moment
If you’re having a cramp, Schell recommended stretching the muscle. If stretching doesn’t help, you can massage the muscle to help it relax using your hands, a foam roller or a tennis ball. If the cramp is in your leg or foot, walking around can often help it to release.
Prevent Cramps From Occurring
While experts don’t know why a cramp occurs, Schell noted there are some things you can do to help prevent it from happening.
- Drink enough water. Alcohol and caffeine are dehydrating, so cut back on those fluids and increase your water intake. It is recommended that you drink half of your body weight in ounces of water per day. For example, a person weighing 160 pounds should aim for 80 ounces a day.
- Be mindful of exercising in the heat. Schell reported that muscle cramps are often associated with exercise, especially when it is hot out. The more you sweat, the more fluid your body loses which can lead to dehydration. Stay hydrated and use an electrolyte solution if you’ll be exercising for more than an hour.
- Warm up and cool down when exercising. Don’t increase your intensity or duration by more than 10 percent a week.
- To prevent nighttime cramping, alternate standing and sitting during the day to avoid being in one position too long. Wear comfortable, supportive shoes during the day.
- Stretching before bed may help with nighttime cramping.
- If you sleep on your back, use pillows to support your legs and feet so your toes point toward the ceiling. If you sleep on your stomach, hang your feet over the foot of the bed so your toes point toward the floor.
- Talk to your primary care provider about any medications you take that may have a side effect of muscle cramps. Common offenders include diuretics, beta-blockers and statins.
- Make sure you are getting enough nutrition from your diet. This is especially important for people over the age of 60, when it can become harder for the body to absorb nutrients. Sometimes, insufficient amounts of vitamin B12 may contribute to muscle cramping. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products like eggs, meat and dairy. Most people get enough B12 from their diet, but strict vegetarians or vegans may need to talk to their provider about a supplement, said Schell.
For Muscle Pain That Lingers After a Cramp
Most cramps go away on their own and allow you to resume your activity. If you do experience lasting pain or soreness from a cramp, try these tips to ease your discomfort.
- Try a topical cream or patch that contains a combination of methyl salicylate and menthol like Icy Hot or Salonpas, which may offer temporary relief.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen.
- Use a heating pad or ice pack, or try a hot or cold bath. Many believe that soaking in a warm tub with Epsom salts can also relieve muscle soreness and promote relaxation. You can use whatever feels good to you, but Schell noted that heat can relax tight or tense muscles while ice works well to decrease swelling and lessen muscle soreness.
“Cramps happen occasionally and are at most a minor annoyance,” said Schell. “If they start to interfere with your sleep or if they occur regularly with no clear cause, then talk to your primary care provider. There may be something else going on with your health that should be addressed.
Are your sitting too much? See 5-minute office stretches from SamFit.
Watch a video from Samaritan Athletic Medicine explaining how to stretch your calves.