What Causes Cramps and How Can You Fix Them

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Amelia Phillips

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Something I get asked often about is dealing with cramps. Specifically here I am talking about cramps that develop while exercising. These are known as Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC).  They are quite a common condition and can be defined as “painful, spasmodic and involuntary contractions of muscles that occur during or immediately after exercise”. Common areas for cramps are generally the foot and legs.

It is not well understood as to why they develop and what to do to minimise the risk of getting a cramp?

What Causes Cramps?

Traditional thought was they they are caused by dehydration, hot conditions or low electrolyte elves (sodium and magnesium). The old school theory dates back around 100 years to excessive sweating caused by hot or humid conditions led to depleted electrolytes and this caused muscle cramps.

The problem with this sweeping theory is that no research since has been able to prove this to be true and this type of process would lead to an effect in all muscles , where most cramps are very localised in nature.

Some new research points to a new hypothesis that they could be caused by altered neuro-muscular control caused by local muscle fatigue developing.

This new school of thought has been developed by some research over the last decade at the University of Cape Town, one of the leading centres of research into endurance exercise in the world. The research was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

They have been able to pin point that cramping can be caused by changes to the nervous system and how it “talks” with the muscular system, especially when the muscular system is fatigued due to intense exercise. The communication into the muscular system is impeded and if exercise continues then a cramp can develop.

The exact cause of cramps is still not proven but this research does give us a clearer picture of the potential causes. Interestingly I rarely get any mention of cramps from my Olympic athletes, who train  for long periods very regularly (so their bodies are used to this in training and competition). I get asked about it more from recreational exercisers or youth and masters athletes who train irregularly  often but still race at high intensity.

What to do if you get a cramp?

They were very clear in their recommendations here- STRETCH!

Gentle passive stretching will help to “reboot” the local nerves and their interactions with the muscles by allowing it to return to normal functioning.

Risk Factors that could increase cramping:

  1. Increased exercise intensity
  2. Increased duration of exercise
  3. Low energy levels (high fatigue)
  4. Inadequate preparation
  5. Challenging environmental conditions
  6. Repeated muscle contractions in short range
  7. Genetic predisposition or past history

How to avoid cramps:

  1. Good hydration
  2. Keep electrolyte levels within a normal range
  3. Ensure  you are well fuelled with good carbohydrates
  4. Exercise at an appropriate intensity
  5. Warm up adequately
  6. Consider training at a similar intensity and for duration of competitions.

Do you get cramps when exercising? What have you noticed helps or hinders them?

Editor’s Note: This post is written by our elite performance specialist Andrew Verdon. Andrew has completed a Diploma in Exercise Science, Certificate IV in Fitness, Level 1 Strength Coaching Qualifications with ASCA. He is currently completing a Post Grad Diploma in Applied Science (Elite Sports Training) and will go on to do a Masters in Recovery.

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  • Sven pischke

    I am suffering intense quad cramps both legs,they only started first slightly in my left hamstring after a morning swim session then moved around to my left quad, that was day 1, second day left quad them right quad, I am a triathlete and train daily. I have been my keeping my fluids up. This is the third day first thing in morning was ok out of bed then after walking down stairs both quads went.

  • bhumika

    hi,
    my mom is around 50yrs,as soon as she stretches her dorsiflexers at ankle joint a bit cramp runs down in her calf muscles of the leg being stretched…what should i do to treat her??

  • Roy

    I am 85 years of age. For years up the age of 70, I competed regularly at athletic meets.

    Now I only have to spend a 10 or so minutes in a shopping mall or 20 minutes light gardening and after maybe an hour or so sleep at night I awake with extremely violent pains in one leg (never two) that lasts for many minutes.

    I also experience minor pains in my fingers, just by holding a newspaper to read for several minutes.

    Has anyone any answers

  • chris perkins

    extreme cramping from my toes to my head the only relief i get is from using quinbisul have had them for 2 years.

  • margaret

    can you tell me how to avoid cramps. does salt
    have any bearing on leg cramps

    regards margaret

  • John Hellen

    My wife and I are both 76 years-of-age, we are both disabled by arthritis and are also type-2 diabetics. We both suffer from severe muscle cramps in the legs and feet. We are both on the usual raft of medicines and I wonder if any of this is caused by the side-effects of some of these drugs.

  • steve tallis

    in response to margaret (1st january 2012 ) i am 53 yrs old, a bricklayer and suffer from severe cramps in both legs , mainly during the hotter months . i get them when i sweat alot . my work shirts have had white rings of salt on them . when a cramp hits i mix up a tall glass of water with a teaspoon salt and drink it down , within two minutes the cramp has subsided . this method may not be for everyone , but it works for me.

  • margaret

    hi i get cramps from head to toes no joking it hurts so much im in tears every nite can”t get a good nights rest with out waking up at least 6 or 7 if not more every nite jumping up or should say trying to stand up with both legs cramping up .please help me

  • lyall

    I dont get my cramps from sport, i get mine mainly in my right calf and its always in bed asleep and it wakes me up in great pain. So what would be doing that if you are a sleep?

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