We all will, at some point in our life, experience and learn what cramps are: involuntary, pain-provoking muscle contractions that usually last several seconds to a few minutes. If you get leg cramps, or any muscle cramps, here’s what you need to know.
Why Are My Muscles Cramping?
Let’s get a little nerdy with it!
In order to trigger the necessary muscle contractions to go about our day and function properly, our motor nerves must be kicked into action by the motor neurons. Motor nerves are particularly sensitive, sometimes misfiring at high rates and creating abnormal muscle contractions. Once this happens, a cramp occurs.
As of yet, it is unknown what mechanism causes the rapid misfiring or why nighttime leg cramps are so prevalent. Luckily there are prevention methods that can lessen the intensity or the probability of cramps.
Before we get into care and prevention, it’s important to keep in mind the influencing factors that may lead up to cramps, especially if this is a recurring problem.
The possible causes of cramps include:
- Nutritional deficiencies or electrolyte imbalance
- Side Effects from Medications (especially diuretics and statins)
- Underlying Medical Conditions
- Overexertion or addition of new activities
- Improper sitting or prolonged standing
- Circulatory issues
- Structural issues
- Improper shoe fit or support
Knowing what could contribute to cramps can help us be mindful of our activity, our diet, and even our lifestyle so that we can adopt better daily practices.
The Best Thing to Do For Leg Muscle Cramps?
Whenever a leg cramp strikes it’s best to gently go into the cramp, further shortening the muscle. It may not feel natural but forcing the muscle to stretch in the opposite direction of the cramp can compromise the integrity of the tissues.
Once the cramp has subsided you can mix and match the following options to your liking:
- Passive stretching
- Manually stretch the primary muscles involved, either with a partner or by yourself with your hands. Gently moving in the direction of the cramp, into the opposite direction and back will remind your brain and your muscles that it’s ok to relax and function again.
- Heat or ice
- You can use an ice pack or a semi-hot wet towel or a heating pad for some relief.
- Active exercise
- Not strenuous exercise! Strengthening the affected muscles can greatly support your musculoskeletal system.
- Sitting back and resting your leg or foot on some pillows will promote lymph drainage through gravitational pull.
Watch the video below for Dr.Shakib’s tips on leg cramps!
Will Massage Really Help With My Leg Cramps?
Of course it can help!
All forms of massage facilitate your body’s natural healing process. Manipulating your soft tissues regulates your nervous system and allows a shift in chemical levels and fluid intake.
Again, cramps are contractions; when a muscle is inadvertently bunched together even for a few seconds, some of those fibers stay glued to one another and constrict the steady flow of blood, water, nutrients, and minerals that support cellular reconstruction.
Massage in essence stretches the muscles, opens up the lymphatic system, and allows a microcellular clean-up.
You can always schedule a massage for precise help but in between treatments you can certainly work on yourself with your own two hands or ask a partner to help you out by doing the following:
- After gentle stretching of the area, lightly compress the affected muscle bellies for a few seconds and let go, repeating several times.
- With a little bit of lotion or oil (medicated or mint-scented can further help) you can run your fingers, knuckles, or palm along the length of the muscle in sweeping or circular motions to break up the tissue and increase blood flow.
Prevention Techniques for Muscle Cramps
Although it is unclear exactly why cramps happen, there is a consensus on how to be proactive in preventing cramps.
By addressing the possible causes, the main ideas are to:
- Stay well hydrated
- Stretch after waking, before and after exercise, and before getting in bed
- Strengthen your lower limbs (Click-through for a past blog post on the best leg and lower extremity workouts)
- Eat and supplement properly
It is possible that the causes can be related to our nutrition or lack thereof. The following list of vitamins and minerals may decrease the likelihood of cramps if we maintain sufficient quantities of them in our bodies. Keep in mind that this is informational and in no way replaces a conversation that you should have with your doctor before adding or modifying supplements to your lifestyle.
- Necessary for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body; maintains healthy heart and bones; regulates blood sugar and blood pressure; promotes neuromuscular transmission and muscle contraction.
- Calcium silicate
- Vital for the growth, health, and function of bones, muscles, brain, and nerves; improves skin elasticity, nail growth, and hair.
- Regulates fluid balance, muscle contractions, and nerve signals.
- Conducts nerve impulses; contracts and relaxes muscles; maintains the proper balance of water and minerals
- Helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus; strengthens the immune system; improves brain function.
- Creates DNA; nourishes the brain and nervous system; assists with the formation of healthy red blood cells.
The overarching theme here is nervous system support and brain function improvement. Many of the nutrients above can be naturally found in the foods we eat! Some examples include sweet potatoes, melons, avocados, bananas, black beans, nuts, and dark leafy greens.***Speak with your doctor before adding any supplements to your regimen.***
All in all, cramps may be a rite of passage until technological advances clarify what exactly sets off a cramp. Until then, it’s best to be proactive and take care of ourselves. I leave you with this video that explores nocturnal leg cramps.
This blog was contributed by Lex Alvarado:
Lex Alvarado has over 14 years of experience working with patients, collaborating care to improve pain and posture.She is certified in Active Release Technique (ART) and neuromuscular massage (CNMT) and is a Board certified massage therapist (CAMTC). She is currently on the rehab. team at Irvine Spine and Wellness Center. When you are ready, contact us online or reach the team at 949-552-5535
Dr. Shakib, your Irvine Posture Chiropractor