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Muscle Cramps: Common and Painful But Preventable

Almost every athlete (and, anyone reading this right now) has had muscle cramps at some point. From a hamstring pulling up during a sprint or a foot cramp upon rising from a chair, to the dreaded calf cramp in the middle of the night, muscle cramps can be very painful. Because they are so common, it is important to understand how they can happen with everyday activities, and that they there are a number of remedies to prevent and treat muscle cramps to reduce occurrence and intensity.

Group of elementary school children stretching


Last year I was seeing a patient who was a very active athlete.  He had good flexibility and muscle strength, and warmed up and cooled down appropriately after football games, but was nevertheless experiencing abdominal, leg, and foot cramps on a regular basis.  After analyzing the body, I asked him about his diet. His mom rolled her eyes at just the asking of that question.  "I can't get him to eat anything healthy," she complained. Her son admitted, reluctantly, that he never ate any fruits or vegetables.  He changed his diet and, a week later, reported no more cramps.

Message: Diet can have an affect on muscle cramps. Ensure your athlete is eating a well-balanced diet.

Too much of a good thing

I had a patient about 2 years ago who complained of regular muscle cramps. He was in early 50's and said he had calf cramps for the past 30 years. After going through all his history, and assessing exercise patterns, diet, flexibility, strength, I was able to pinpoint the reason. But as he was sitting in my office, I noticed that he had a 64-ounce soda jug, like the ones you find at convenience stores and gas stations. I asked him how often he drank soda. He told me, "Ohh, I have about 4 of these a day."   In other words, he was drinking 2 gallons of diet Pepsi a day! Since he constantly had carbon dioxide in his stomach from the soda, he was having trouble digesting basic nutrients, which are needed for proper muscle function. I had him switch to iced tea, and he never had a problem ever again.  

Message: Even with a normal diet, you or your child could be consuming something that is blocking normal absorption of nutrients and causing muscle cramps.

Muscle imbalance

A 14-year-old basketball player I was treating experienced a hamstring cramp while trying to do an exercise. His leg seized up and he looked rather stunned. How did that happen? "Why me? he asked. After the cramp subsided a minute later I instructed him to squeeze the glutes before lifting his butt off the mat. Low and behold, no more cramps! It was simply over-activation of one muscle group, because the glutes were not doing their job.

Message: Muscle imbalance can cause muscle groups to cramp. If you child is having regular muscle cramps, have them checked to see if there are muscles that need to be strengthened.

Fatigue and tightness

I have seen muscle cramps resulting from fatigue and tightness many times, in athletes of all ages. Recently, I had a patient who complained of foot cramps after volleyball games. She said she would wake up with a terrible pain in the center of the foot. Going through her medical history, it didn't appear that she had any problems with diet, exercise, water intake, vitamin D, etc. I examined the foot and calf, I didn't detect any major problems either, until I asked her to stretch. Her Achilles tendons were so tight she could barely get into the stretching position! After one week of calf stretching and foot exercises, she has never had an issue.

Message: Overtired and tight muscles can cramp in some athletes. Pay attention to your child if they are complaining of cramps, are very tight, and refuse or unable to stretch.

Prevention strategies

The previous examples were situations were the problem was identified and corrected. Basic preventions strategies include:

  • Proper nutrition
  • Adequate hydration
  • Regular stretching
  • Maintaining strong, balanced muscle groups
  • Properly warming up for and cooling down from exercise

Generally speaking, younger athletes are more prone to muscle cramping for the reasons outlined above, but the good news is that they respond quickly to these prevention strategies.

When to see a doctor 

Sometimes muscle cramps are the result of things that cannot be addressed without seeing a doctor, including, but is not limited to, cramps are the result of:

  • Injury;
  • Improper function of the parathyroid (calcium regulators);
  • Medications;
  • Poor nutrient absorption;
  • Genetic condition;
  • Nerve damage; or
  • Poor circulation

If efforts to eliminate cramping are ineffective, make sure you contact the physician to rule out a more serious condition.

Posted November 19, 2013