Cramps in athletes

Cramps in athletes

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What is muscle spasm

The term ‘muscle cramp’ refers to a contraction of the muscle which is involuntary and can be very painful. Muscle cramp can also be referred to as muscle spasms. Cramp is an extremely common problem for athletes and those engaging in sports activity, and can occur in any skeletal muscle. Most commonly an individual may suffer from cramp in the legs, feet, and in any muscles which cross two joins (such as the calf muscle). While cramp may only affect one muscle, it can also arise in all the muscles in a group.

Cause of muscle spasm

A muscle spasm or cramp can vary in degrees of intensity. The spasm may manifest itself as merely a twitch, but in other cases cramp can be extremely painful. The muscle may feel very hard for anything from a few seconds to several minutes and in some cases even longer, depending on the intensity of the spasm. The muscle itself may be painful or tender to the touch, and it is often impossible for the injured person to continue with exercise or sport due to the discomfort caused.

The exact cause of muscle cramp is, as yet, unknown. Cramp can occur without warning, but ordinarily occur in the muscles in the legs and feet. Often, the spasms happen during or after exercise or while playing sports, and also when in bed (the calf muscle is the most common muscle to cramp at night).

The ‘Dehydration/Electrolyte Theory: This theory is probably the oldest. It speculates that a significant disturbance in fluid or electrolyte balance, usually due to a reduction in total body exchangeable sodium stores, causes a contraction of the interstitial fluid compartment around muscles and a misfiring of nerve impulses, leading to cramp.

The ‘Neuromuscular Theory’: This theory is more recent and proposes that muscle overload and neuromuscular fatigue are the root causes of Exercise Associated Muscle Cramp. In other words, muscles tend to cramp specifically when they are overworked and fatigued due to electrical misfiring.

In simpler terms, if you lose a lot of sodium and don’t replace it (as is common when you sweat a lot) it can cause fluid shifts in the body that in turn causes cramps.

Factors which can contribute to the onset of cramp include:

  • Overexertion
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Unstretched, tight muscles
  • Low physical fitness
  • Poor running technique (rolling to the outside of the foot, for instance)
  • Exercising in extreme heat

 Avoid muscle spasm with:

  • Improve overall fitness in order to prevent and avoid muscle fatigue
  • Warm up before undertaking any strenuous exercises
  • Stretch the muscles which are prone to cramp before exercising to reduce the likelihood of developing cramp (hamstring, calf, quadriceps).
  • Stretch after exercise to prevent cramp after exertion
  • Manage your hydration levels by drinking water while exercising

How to get rid of muscle spasm

As soon as cramp occurs, cease physical activity and stretch the muscle gently. It is also helpful to massage the muscle which is in spasm. In the event of a calf muscle cramp (a very common type of spasm) hold the calf muscle in one hand while pulling the toes up toward the knee at the same time. Walking may also help to relieve the spasm. In severe cases ice packs may be applied to the cramping muscle – these ice packs reduce the flow of blood to the muscle and can help them relax.

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