Muscle Cramps: The Causes & How to Treat Answers

Muscle Cramps Cause Treatment
Photo by: Scott Ableman

At the Chiropractic Clinic in Fourways we have had runners coming in who are about to compete in the 2010 Comrades Marathon . If you didn’t know the comrades marathon for 2010 is 89.28km in distance. So with less than a week to go many comrades runners are worried about any little niggles or running injuries before the big race day, like muscle cramps. We have been helping these ultra-marathon runners with any of their sports injuries worries. Today I came across a very interesting article talking about muscle cramps from exercise, like running.

So I wanted to let you know what I found out about how to avoid muscle cramping during the Comrades marathon or any other endurance sport you want to compete in.

I was surprised to read about what they said about Magnesium supplements. I have also included what causes muscle cramps and some tips on what you could try do to help a muscle cramp.

What Causes Muscle to Cramp?

You may know that feeling when you are running along no problem when suddenly you get a tightening feeling in your leg, either in the calf or hamstring, and you just know a cramp is coming your way. The worst is when you get the sudden, unexpected, severe muscle cramp. The cramp feeling immediately stops you in your tracks, dropping you to the floor, forcing you to try stretch it out for some pain relief.

Now you have a question “What causes the muscle to cramp in the first place?”

The answer is there are two types of muscle cramps:

  1. Muscle Overload and Fatigue
  2. Electrolyte Deficit

In order to know how to fix a muscle cramp, it is important you know which type of muscle cramp you may be experiencing.

Muscle Overload and Fatigue Cramps

Basically, this is when you place the muscle, or tendon, fibres under more mechanical stress than they can handle. This then causes the muscle fibres to get over-excited and lose the ability to voluntarily contract or relax. This result is the muscle will just tighten up and cause a cramp feeling.

How do you know you if you are experiencing this type of cramp? It is when you feel the cramp localised to one particular muscle and stretching it out, massaging or trying to ice the muscle helps stop the cramp pain.

In order to avoid these types of fatigue cramps you may need to look at doing some regular muscle stretching routine and try reduce the amount of body weight you are placing on the muscle. This is to better condition yourself for exercise.

Electrolyte Deficit

The recent research article that I read by Michael Bergeron went into a lot of detail regarding this muscle cramp cause. These types of muscle cramps mainly happen because your salt (sodium) levels are not correct.

You need your salt levels to be correct in both your blood (plasma) and the space between the muscle fibres (interstitial fluid space).

What Bergen found was that many times sports men and women do not get the balance right electrolyte balance between the plasma in their blood and muscle fibres.

How do you know if you are experiencing this type of cramp? The symptoms of being electrolyte deficit include: muscle twitches at rest (fasciculations), and wide spread cramping.

How do you fix this type of cramp? The solution is you need to get more salt (sodium) into your body to restore the balance between the blood levels and space between the muscles.

Can Your Brain Cause Cramp?

The causes could also include an overstimulated Sympathetic Nervous System. Your sympathetic nervous system will cause you to sweat more because your body is in an excited state. This is like when you are in a stressful meeting and you are sweating lots in your armpits or balmy, cold hands.

Watch How to Cramp Your Calf Muscle

See how this person gets their calf muscle to go into cramp. It is a nice example of the muscle fasciculation’s I mentioned above. See how the fibres involuntarily contract and cause him pain.

Drink More Salty Fluids

So it was found it is not the amount of water drunk that is important to prevent electrolyte dehydration, but the amount of salt ingested compared to what is lost through sweating.

Scientist look at the amount of salt you excrete in your sweat during exercise and the rate at which you sweat. So you could have a lot or little sodium in your sweat. You can also sweat easily or more slowly. So it is a combination of the two that can determine if might be prone to electrolyte deficit muscle cramps.

How to Drink More Salt

Here is the suggested recipe for a good salty fluid drink you can make yourself:

  1. Take three Salt tablets (NaCl),
  2. Crush them,
  3. Add to 1.5 litres of water
  4. Stir and drink

The above is recipe for a salt (sodium) drink. But it is not only fluid you get salt in but also your diet with the food you eat. Speak to a dietician or nutritionist about salt in your diet and if you are getting enough.

Muscle Cramps and Magnesium Supplements

One point Bergmen made that I found interesting was that it is not mainly magnesium and potassium that we need to help prevent cramps, but sodium. I know many people who take magnesium tablets to help with cramping. Maybe they shouldn’t be using magnesium rather sodium drinks.

So if you are taking magnesium for muscle cramp prevention and you are not getting the desired result maybe you need more sodium in your blood and interstitial fluid compartments.

How Much Water Should You Drink

I was reading a Runners World UK article talking about Sports Science Institute of South Africa Professor Tim Noakes book “The Lore of Running”. Professor Noakes talked about in the article how runners can drink too much water during running causing problems.

Most runners believe drinking up to 800ml per hour was good for keeping hydrated, but this is too much for most.

If you follow what Bergmen found then it is not water you need, but salty water. If you have the correct sodium levels then your body won’t need as much water.

It would look like that you should be guided by your thirst levels. When you are taking in fluids it should be a sports drink with carbohydrates and sodium.

Dangerous Water Levels

Having too much water can dilute your sodium electrolyte balance causing a condition called Hyponatraemia meaning “low blood sodium”. Hyponatraemia can be a dangerous condition with symptoms ranging from nausea and bloating to dizziness, brain seizures and death. Women runners are more to Hyponatraemia because they follow taking lots of water advise more rigorously than men but actually need less water then male runners.

Hyponatraemia can also be made more likely when taking asprin and ibuprofen. I know lots of runners, especially for the comrades marathon, who think taking a anti-inflammatory will helps cover the sports injury pain. If they then drink too much water they could be setting themselves up for a case of Hyponatraemia.

Does Heat Cause Muscle Cramps

Heat is not the cause of muscle cramps. Heat may make you sweat more easily at rest, but most athletes get muscle cramps in cold weather or indoors. Bergmen suggested calling cramps not heat induced but exercise associated. Exercise increase your body temperature no matter if it is hot or cold outside. Exercise will bring out any sodium imbalance between your plasma and interstitial fluid compartment levels.

Self-Treatment of Muscle Cramps

  1. First figure out if the muscle cramp is “Muscle Overload and Fatigue” or “Electrolyte Deficit”
  2. Try stretching the muscle in cramp
  3. Try massaging the cramp or seeing a physiotherapist for soft tissue work
  4. Use ice packs or do ice massage on the cramping muscle
  5. See a sports physician to test your sodium sweat concentration and sweat rate
  6. Speak to a dietician or nutritionist to determine your salt levels and dietary habits
  7. Try the “Salt Drink Recipe” above to replace sodium levels during or after a run
  8. See a biokinetist to assess your exercise levels and get tested to see if you are over-exerting yourself or moving incorrectly
  9. Try work on your stress levels. Your sympathetic nervous system makes you sweat more even when you are not exercising. Chiropractors work on the nervous system and could help you try relax.
  10. Drink small amounts regularly. Professor Noakes said “The most consistent finding is that fluid ingestion markedly reduces the perception of effort during exercise at both low and high intensities,”.

The muscle cramp treatment list above is not exhaustive and you should see a medical doctor to make sure there are no serious health conditions. Cramps can happen anywhere where there is skeletal muscle. The most common places include the leg muscles. Stomach cramps are a different story compared to these cramps.

I wish all those running the Comrades Marathon well. I hope you don’t get any muscle cramps and that you achieve a great personal goal.

References:

  1. Bergeron, M. “Muscle Cramps during Exercise – Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte Deficit” Current Sports Medicine Reports. 7(4):S50-S55, July/August 2008.
  2. RW’s Complete Guide To Hydration – The latest research, the most practical advice: everything a runner needs to know about drinking by Alison Hamlett and Anita Bean 25 February 2005