Very unpleasant, cramps are involuntary and temporary muscular contractions occurring most often in the calf and foot. In this lesson, we will discuss what are cramps, what causes cramps, what helps with cramps and finally how to get rid of cramps fast.
What are cramps?
Cramps are muscle disorders that present as sudden involuntary contractions of short duration (usually a few seconds). Cramps can cause a temporary disability in functional mobility, often affecting the muscles of the calves and feet. While the cramp pain can be particularly intense, it is usually mild. However, recurrent nocturnal cramps can disturb the sleep of some patients who may develop a state of chronic fatigue.
The causes of the cramps remain mysterious. They could result from dehydration (electrolytic disorder) or from impaired neuromuscular control. However, it has been observed that the trigger for the cramp is often physical activity. But there are many other causes of cramps: metabolic disorders, neurological pathologies, taking certain medications…
Cramp, a frequent and benign phenomenon
This phenomenon is quite frequent, generally benign and appears:
- when the muscles are at rest (often at night). This type of cramp is more common in pregnant women and the elderly;
- during intense physical effort (it often occurs in athletes).
However, the cramp can be symptomatic of a health problem (neurological disease, metabolic disorder, side effects of a drug…). If the cramps are repeating too often, it is best to consult a doctor.
Cramps, body aches, contractures: what’s the difference?
The 3 “Cs”: cramps, aches and contractures are difficult to differentiate because no examination can really identify them. Indeed, these 3 Cs differ from tearing or straining, which involve muscle lesions perceptible by imaging.
As we saw above, cramps are involuntary and temporary contractions of a muscle. They often reach the calf muscle and are caused by a blood circulation disorder or dehydration.
Contracture, on the other hand, is defined by a prolonged involuntary contraction (unlike a cramp which is brief) and painful of a muscle. They can occur at rest (primary curvature) or following a trauma (fall, false movement) or a muscle lesion (strain, tear)… In the latter case, it is best to consult a doctor and avoid soliciting the painful area before obtaining a diagnosis and specific medical recommendations.
Finally, the stiffness is very different from a cramp, firstly because it does not result in a contraction. It is muscle pain related to unusual physical exertion. Microlesions are sometimes present but the muscle fibers repair themselves in a few days.
Cramps vs spasms: what’s the difference?
Spasms are involuntary and sudden contractions that can stay prolong They are a sign of muscle fatigue, dehydration (magnesium deficiency), lack of recovery and stretching. They often affect the postural muscles which extend from the thorax to the lower part of the pelvis and allow the junction between the upper and lower body (unlike cramps which affect the calves or the feet).
Unlike spasms, the pain of cramps is short-lived but very intense. It usually yields with a stretch of a few seconds.
What causes cramps?
Cramps originate from the spontaneous firing of motor neurons, rather than from the muscle itself.
The first theory, which is the most classic, identifies dehydration and electrolyte disorders (loss of mineral salts in the blood) – as the main sources of muscle cramps. This theory remains widespread in popular beliefs. However, it challenge scientifically.
The second and more recent theory, born in the late 1990s, is related to impaired neuromuscular control. Two types of disorders seem to be able to explain this phenomenon: abnormal excitation of the axon terminal and hyperexcitability of motor neurons at the spina level. These factors seem to be more likely to cause cramping than dehydration.
Other etiologies have been retained by the studies such as a state of severe fatigue, a low level of training or a history of muscle damage. In fact, several studies have shown that cramps are more common in people who have experienced muscle strains or injuries or who are performing exercise at a higher intensity than the usual unsupported one. by the degree of training of the person. The fatigue induced during intense exercise causes an increase in the activity of the neuromuscular spindles and decreases the activity of the Golgi tendon organ, which could therefore result in a greater activation of the α motor neurons explaining the triggering of cramp.
What are the risk factors for cramps?
The risk factors for cramp are:
- Intense physical exercise;
- Advance in age;
- Great fatigue;
- Sedentary lifestyle or a low level of training;
- A history of muscle injuries;
- A pathology of the motor neurons of the lower limbs (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, post poliomyelitis, radiculopathy, neuropathy, etc.);
- Metabolic disorders (pregnancy, uremia, hypoadrenalism, hypothyroidism, cirrhosis);
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In case of cramps, the symptoms encountered are:
- sudden and intense pain and tightness in one or more muscles;
- almost impossible to walk for the duration of the cramp.
These signs do not last more than a few seconds to a minute but may leave the affected muscle tender and painful.
It is advisable to consult a doctor if other symptoms occur.
How to get rid of cramps? Prevention tip(s)
How to get rid of cramps? In order to get rid of, we recommend to:
- warm up sufficiently before and after exercise;
- stay sufficiently hydrated before, during and after exercise;
- supplement with magnesium and sodium: marine magnesium is recommended at a dose of 300 mg per day, as well as vitamin B6 at a rate of 2 mg per day to promote the absorption of magnesium;
- eat appropriate foods before physical exertion;
- avoid intense and prolonged efforts;
- limit the consumption of stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes, tea, etc.
- avoid cold (swimmers often have cramps in cold water) and excessive heat;
- seek the advice of a doctor for taking certain medications.
An ordinary, one-time cramp does not require medical examinations.
However, when cramps occur repeatedly, they require a thorough medical examination to rule out a more serious condition: muscular, neurological, etc.
How to stop cramps? treatment(s)
When a cramp appears, it is recommended to stretch and massage the painful muscle(s). Stretching the muscle lifts muscle spasm and relieves pain by opposing the mechanical effects of contracture.
If the cramp could not relieve, applying cold can help the muscle(s) relax. Use as first intention a cold bomb (in sports stores, in pharmacies) with instant action; failing that, ice cubes placed in a glove or towel so as not to burn the skin. For athletes, there is also a cryotherapy gel in a sachet to keep in the freezer (do not place directly on the skin because of the risk of burning).
If necessary, the doctor can prescribe a treatment, but since the withdrawal from the market of muscle relaxants based on tetrazepam, the therapeutic arsenal has been reduced.