Why do I get Muscle Cramps?

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

by Robert J. Snyder, MD

Anyone who has ever had a Charley Horse or calf cramp knows that it can be extremely painful and can leave you sore for days afterwards.  As an Orthopaedic physician, I treat a wide variety of musculoskeletal problems.  Occasionally, I will see a person who complains of muscle cramping and how the problem impacts their lives.  Muscle cramping happens when a muscle decides to go into a spasm, and contract without our brain conciously telling it to do so.  In this article, I will try to provide some helpful information about muscle cramps and how you can prevent them.

Muscle cramps most commonly affect our legs and feet, although they can happen in any muscle.  They commonly happen at night when you are in bed, but they can strike at any time.  They usually don’t happen out of the blue, even if you feel like you have done nothing to cause them.  There is almost always a reason for them to happen and those include the following:

  • Over-use
  • Dehydration
  • Age – over 65
  • Lack of minerals in the diet, particularly magnesium or potassium
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Alcoholism

So how do we treat recurrent leg cramps?  If you do not have diabetes, hypothyroidism or alcoholism (which most patients don’t), simply paying attention to what you eat and drink can help.  Behavior modification also is important.

Drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated.  You can also try the low or zero calorie sports drinks to help replenish your electrolytes while you hydrate. Only drink alcohol in moderation because it can act to dehydrate you.  Stay away from caffeinated beverages, which act like diuretics and can deplete your mineral levels.

You may be deficient in the electrolytes that your body requires for proper muscle function.  Start consuming foods that are rich in magnesium or potassium, like nuts, bananas, spinach, seeds, beans, whole wheat and quinoa.  Take a supplement if you don’t like the foods listed above.  Just make sure to talk to your physician, if you are pregnant, before adding any supplements.

Stretch your muscles regularly, especially the ones that cramp.  Make sure you stretch before AND after exercising.

Soak in a hot tub and use Epsom salts, if desired.  You can also apply a heating pad to relax the muscle and alleviate soreness.  Just don’t fall asleep on a heating pad because you might burn yourself.

Keep a diary to track your activities, exercise and food and beverage consumption.  Note when you have muscle cramps and what you might have done or not done to cause them.  A diary can provide extremely valuable information when studied over the course of several weeks.  A pattern of behavior which exacerbates your tendency to cramp may become obvious and you can modify your routine.

While cramps are painful and a pain to deal with, they aren’t life-threatening and most can be dealt with without medications or other interventions.