A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. If you’ve ever been awakened in the night or stopped in your tracks by a sudden charley horse, you know that muscle cramps can cause severe pain. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.
Long periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly in hot weather, can lead to muscle cramps. Some medications and certain medical conditions also may cause muscle cramps. You usually can treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures
Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.
When to see a doctor
Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care. However, see your doctor if your cramps:
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn’t known.
Although most muscle cramps are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
Factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
Back of the lower leg/calf
Back of the thigh (hamstrings)
Front of the thigh (quadriceps)
Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.
Muscle cramps are common and may be stopped by stretching the muscle. The cramping muscle may feel hard or bulging.
Muscle cramps are different than muscle twitches, which are covered in a separate article.
Muscle cramps are common and often occur when a muscle is overused or injured. Working out when you have not had enough fluids (dehydration) or when you have low levels of minerals such as potassium or calcium can also make you more likely to have a muscle spasm.
Muscle cramps can occur while you play tennis or golf, bowl, swim, or do any other exercise.
They can also be triggered by:
If you have a muscle cramp, stop your activity and try stretching and massaging the muscle.
Heat will relax the muscle when the spasm begins, but ice may be helpful when the pain has improved.
If the muscle is still sore, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications can help with pain. If the muscle cramps are severe, your health care provider can prescribe other medicines.
The most common cause of muscle cramps during sports activity is not getting enough fluids. Often, drinking water will ease the cramping. However, water alone does not always help. Salt tablets or sports drinks, which also replenish lost minerals, can be helpful.
Other tips for relieving muscle cramps:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if your muscle cramps:
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your provider will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, such as:
Blood tests may be done to check for the following:
Pain medicines may be prescribed.§ A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax.
You can usually treat muscle cramps with self-care measures. Your doctor can show you stretching exercises that can help you reduce your chances of getting muscle cramps. Making sure you stay well-hydrated also can help. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor might prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.
Some suggest taking vitamin B complex supplements to help manage leg cramps. However, more research is needed to confirm this benefit.
Treating leg cramps
If the cause of your leg cramps is known, it may be possible to treat the underlying cause.
For example, secondary leg cramps that are related to liver disease are caused by high levels of toxins in the blood which trigger muscles spasms. Therefore, muscle relaxants can be used to help prevent your muscles from going into spasm.
If the cause of your legs cramps is unknown (primary idiopathic leg cramps), a combination of exercise and painkilling medication is usually recommended.
Most cases of leg cramps can be treated with exercises. There are two types of exercise that you can do:
The two types of exercises are explained below.
Exercises during cramps
During an episode of leg cramp, stretch and massage the affected muscle.
For example, if the cramp is in your calf muscle:
Exercises to prevent cramps
To reduce your risk of getting leg cramps in the future, you should do exercises to stretch the affected muscles three times a day.
For example, if your calf muscles are affected by cramps, the following exercise should be beneficial:
For the best results, you should repeat this exercise three times a day, including one session just before you go to bed. Here’s an alternative calf stretch.
If you find these exercises useful you can carry on doing them for as long as you are able to.
Quinine was originally designed as a medication to treat malaria. Subsequent research has found that it can also be moderately effective in reducing the frequency of leg cramps.
However, there is a small chance that quinine may cause unpleasant side effects including:
Thrombocytopenia is a rarer but more serious complication of quinine. It occurs when the number of platelets in your blood falls to a dangerously low level. Platelets help the blood to clot which means people with thrombocytopenia are at increased risk of excessive bleeding such as:
There have been a number of reported cases of people dying from thrombocytopenia after taking quinine to prevent leg cramps.
Never take more than your recommended dose of quinine. An overdose of quinine can result in permanent blindness and death.
Due to these small but potential risks, your GP will only prescribe quinine if there is evidence that the potential benefit of treatment outweighs the risks.
It is recommended that quinine is only prescribed when:
In these circumstances, you may be prescribed a four-week course of quinine. After this time, if you have not gained any benefit, the treatment will be withdrawn.
If you experience any of the side effects listed above, stop taking quinine immediately and contact your GP.
Your treatment for leg cramps will be closely monitored and regularly reviewed. For example:
Treating a Muscle Cramp
“If you are experiencing leg cramps, the best thing that you can do is walk around,” says certified personal trainer Henry Halse. “This will send the signal that your muscle needs to contract and then relax. Think of it as hitting the reset button on the muscle.” If all else fails, and you continue to have regular muscle cramps, Halse advises getting regular massages, which is a nice idea whether you have muscle cramps or not.