About two out of three people experience painful muscle cramps during sport, activity or even just lying in bed. It most commonly occurs in the calf muscle or the foot. Exercise can cause an abnormal stimulation of the muscle causing an involuntary and forceful contraction and is more likely to occur in a tired muscle.
A small minority of people may lose vast amounts of sodium (salt) in their sweat, leading to cramps. However, it is not wise for most people to take additional sodium as they may make dehydration worse by drawing water from the blood stream into the intestine and increase the risk of further cramps. Dehydration and extremes of temperature don’t appear to be the direct cause of cramps, but they do increase the risk. Heat stress or cold stress can also promote cramps.
Note: Those people who exercise intensely for longer than 90 minutes may need an electrolyte replacement such as a sports drink.
If you do get a cramp, stretching the cramped muscle is the best way to reduce the pain. Applying ice can also stop the spasm and reduce the pain, while massaging the affected muscle can also provide relief.
Reducing the risk of a cramp
- Stretch before and after exercise. If cramps are a problem at other times, e.g. during sleep, stretch as required.
- Increase your fitness. Cramps are less common in people who are well trained.
- Drink plenty of non-caffeinated & non-alcoholic fluids to reduce dehydration.
- Decrease the amount of fat in your diet.
- Acclimatise to warmer weather to help to avoid dehydration.