What causes muscle cramps, and how to prevent or get rid of them
Musclecramps are caused by sudden and uncontrollable muscle contractions.
- Dehydration, low electrolytes, overexertion during physical activity, and certain
healthconditions or medications can increase your risk for muscle cramps.
- To prevent or get rid of muscle cramps, it's important to stretch before and after workouts and stay hydrated.
- This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based
fitnessexpert and MYX Fitness coach.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
Most people have likely had the unpleasant experience of a muscle cramp, also known as a charley horse or muscle spasm.
And while most cramps will quickly go away on their own, there are a few helpful strategies you can do at home to prevent and treat them.
Here's what you need to know about what's causing your muscle cramps, how to get rid of them, and when you should see a doctor.
What causes muscle cramps?
A muscle cramp is caused by a sudden and uncontrollable muscle contraction.
When muscles contract, the muscle fibers shorten, increasing tension in the muscle, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). During a cramp, your muscles remain tight and shortened, instead of elongated and relaxed.
For example, your calf muscles can easily shorten when you're lying in bed, since your foot is no longer at a right angle to your leg, like when you're standing.
That's why muscle cramps can occur in your legs in the middle of the night, even when you're fast asleep. But they can occur anywhere you have muscle, and are also common in the feet or hands, as well as the abdomen or rib cage during a workout.
There are many factors that can increase your risk for muscle cramps, such as:
If you don't get enough water each day, the cells in your muscles won't have the fluids they need to properly contract and relax.
"The most common reason for
To drink the right amount of water, divide your weight (in pounds) in half — that's how many ounces of water you should have each day. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, that means you should be drinking 75 fluid ounces, which is about 9 eight-ounce glasses of water.
Hydration is essential for muscle function, and drinking water is just the first step in fueling your muscles correctly.
Electrolytes are minerals that play an important role in keeping you hydrated. They include:
In fact, low levels of sodium and potassium are also a key reason for muscle cramps to occur, says Badia. Perhaps you've heard the advice to eat a banana, which is high in potassium, if you frequently experience muscle cramps.
Working a muscle too hard can lead to cramps during or after a workout.
It's particularly common in hot weather, Badia says, as you sweat and lose fluids more quickly — contributing to dehydration and further increasing your risk for cramps.
Overexertion is also a common issue for older people. As you age, the muscle mass in your body decreases. It's unavoidable even for workout fanatics, Badia says.
As a result, the remaining muscles can be overstressed during physical activity, which can increase your likelihood of muscle cramps.
If you want to avoid cramps, you should make sure to stretch before any physical activity, in order to properly warm up your muscles for
Health conditions or medications
Some underlying medical issues, or their medications, can also increase your risk for muscle cramps:
- Pregnancy. Due to added pressure on the legs, as well as hormonal changes, pregnancy can increase your likelihood of muscle cramping.
- Medical conditions. Thyroid conditions such as hypothyroidism — when your thyroid gland releases lower levels of hormones — are associated with frequent cramping.
- Medications. Muscle cramps are a common side effect of statins, which are prescribed to treat high cholesterol.
How to get rid of muscle cramps
Muscle cramps usually dissipate within seconds or a few minutes. But you don't always have to wait it out. Here's what you can do to ease the cramp and accompanying pain:
Stretch or massage the area
First, try gently massaging the body part that's experiencing a muscle cramp in order to help your tight, cramped muscle relax.
If the cramp is in your calf, this stretch can help relieve the contraction in the muscle, Badia says:
- While sitting, grasp the foot of your cramped leg with both hands.
- Make sure you keep your leg straight, and slowly pull the top of your foot toward your face. You should feel a slight stretch in your affected calf.
You can also ease calf cramps with this standing stretch:
- While standing, bring your opposite knee (not the cramped leg) slowly forward.
- Keep the heel of your cramped leg on the ground. You should feel a slight stretch in your affected calf.
As well as being a treatment for cramps, stretching can also help prevent them. Make sure you stretch the muscles you're using before and after workouts — a brief stretching warm-up before your workout, followed by a more thorough cool-down stretch afterwards, is especially helpful.
Foam rolling, in particular, can help prevent muscle cramps, and is also one of the best ways to get rid of sore muscles.
If you frequently get muscle cramps at night, try doing some simple stretches on those muscles before bedtime, suggests Badia.
Drink more fluids
Other strategies to prevent cramps include getting adequate fluids and electrolytes.
If you're working out, a sports drink, like Gatorade, may be helpful since it provides both hydration and electrolytes, says Badia.
Or, if you're worried about cramps in the middle of the night, drink a glass of water before going to sleep to make sure you're well hydrated.
Apply heat or ice
If a cramp occurs during a workout, or as a result of some other physical activity, the first thing you should do is stop the activity.
When to see your doctor
For the majority of muscle cramps, home care alone is sufficient.
If you have frequent muscle cramps frequently, like on a daily basis, Badia says that could indicate that you have an underlying health problem such as arteriosclerosis, or hardening of your arteries.
If you try to walk it off, and find you are so weak that you can't even stand on your tippy toes, he recommends to check in with your doctor since this could indicate something serious like multiple sclerosis.
In addition, you should see a doctor if your muscle cramps are extremely painful, frequent, or if you notice any swelling (which can be a sign of a blood clot), says Badia.
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