One moment you’ll be swimming, walking up the stairs, or even dozing off in bed when suddenly, you feel it: that tell-tale tightness in your calf or foot. You drop what you’re doing and start rubbing the affected area, but it’s no use – your muscles are tight, tensed up and screaming out in pain.
Thankfully, most muscle cramps don’t leave any permanent damage and the pain dies down after a minute or two.
While quick, muscle cramps – especially in your feet and legs – can totally cramp your style for the next couple of minutes.
So what can you do to stop them from happening?
Why are my muscles cramping up?
But despite how common leg and foot cramps are, surprisingly there’s little consensus among medical professionals as to the exact cause!
Electrolytes, minerals and chemicals
One of the leading theories behind that intense stabbing pain is that your muscles are powered by electrolytes, minerals and other chemicals to contract and move – we’re talking staples like potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Without these, your muscles have a hard time tensing and “untensing”.
The result? Cramps.
Anything that disturbs your body’s balance of these vital staples can stop your muscles from contracting properly. That means a diet that doesn’t include enough of these minerals, a natural deficiency, pregnancy, and even some medications can cause your muscles to cramp up.
Your muscles also need fluids to function effectively – not only does water facilitate the contraction of muscles, but it also helps your muscles perform. Inadequate hydration puts strain on your muscles. We’re sure you know where this is going!
“Hello? Your signal is breaking up…”
Anyone who’s taken to the track or pool without an appropriate amount of warmup is probably aware of the link between overuse and muscle cramps.
Another commonly accepted explanation for cramping is muscle fatigue. Every time you move any part of your body, your brain sends a signal via your nervous system telling your muscles to contract. When the signals from your brain stop coming, your muscles relax.
And sometimes when your muscles start getting into a rhythm part way through a jog, the signals travelling up and down your nerves get a little bit… excited. Your nervous system might send too much information to your legs, causing your muscles to respond with a bit too much zeal for your body.
The same thing happens if you dive into an activity without enough of a warm up – your muscles behave very differently when jogging compared to when you’re in a sprint.
How to stop leg cramps
Compared to a lot of the musculoskeletal issues that your physiotherapist generally treats, muscle cramps are pretty harmless.
But that doesn’t mean the only thing you can do is grit your teeth and put up with it. There are a number of things you can do to prevent leg cramps from popping up at inopportune moments.
These tips can also be used to fight cramps in other parts of your body.
One of the simplest ways to prevent a cramp from ruining your workout is to stay hydrated.
Like we mentioned above, many muscle cramps are the result of dehydration in your muscles. So logically, drinking water frequently and staying well-hydrated should go a long way towards preventing cramps from taking hold.
It’s also worth thinking about energy drinks to keep your body well-stocked on electrolytes – which, need we remind you, are essential for muscle contraction.
Talk to a physio near you about persistent leg cramps
If you fancy yourself an athlete, you can’t afford a muscle cramp of any sort, end of story.
If there’s one particular muscle or part of the body that is used a lot in your sport or workout of choice, or that you’ve noticed is particularly prone to cramping, a physio near you can strengthen said muscle with unique solutions (after an advanced assessment of the issue).
It might also be useful to wear compression garments and skins while working out or playing sport. Like we covered before, one common cause of cramps is muscle fatigue – anything that fights muscle fatigue, including compression garments, can prevent fatigue-related cramping.
Help, my muscles are cramping!
Fortunately, the vast majority of muscle cramps are gone within just moments, but if you find your cramps persisting, there are a couple of things you can do to make life easier.
Massage your muscles
While stretching and massaging the affected muscle won’t stop the cramp in its tracks, they may help relieve the sharp pain that comes with a cramp. A gentle massage also helps to relax the affected muscle, speeding up the recovery process and getting you back on your feet sooner.
Give it the heat treatment
When it comes to leg cramps, heat is your best friend! If your cramp persists, heat therapy can be effective in restoring function to your muscles.
The heat from a hot water bottle, heat pack, or hot shower can relax your tensed-up muscles, and therefore relieve your muscle cramps.
Your physiotherapist can relieve your muscle cramps
Your physiotherapist is more than another weekly appointment – we arm you with the knowledge and tools to maintain your mobility, sustain your results, and lead a high standard of living.
At Physio AUS, we are big believers in the importance of maintaining your mobility – so much so that we make it our mission to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
Our clinic may be based in Highett… but in reality, we’re based anywhere thanks to the internet! Our unique online consultation service and online support network means you get the full physio experience from your living room, bedroom and even the office!