Health Library Content

All About Muscle Cramps

Most of us have experienced the pain of a muscle cramp. Maybe you called it "charley horse," especially if the cramp was in your calf.

Muscle cramps--involuntary muscle contractions--are common. But even though they can be quite painful, they don't usually cause damage.

Any muscle can cramp, but the muscles of the calf, back of the thigh and front of the thigh are most commonly affected, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Cramps are also common in the feet, hands, arms and abdomen, and along the rib cage.

A muscle cramp can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer, the AAOS says. The cramp may recur several times before it goes away.

Causes

Muscle cramps usually occur after muscle fatigue, dehydration or heavy exercise. Simply remaining in the same position for a prolonged time may contribute to a cramp. Avoid those problems and you can avoid muscle cramps--usually. Cramps affect almost all of us at some time in our life.

These are other common causes of muscle cramps:

  • Pregnancy

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Abnormalities of the metabolism

  • Alcoholism

  • Kidney failure

  • Certain medications

Prevention

Warming up and stretching before a workout may help avoid cramping. You should also try to make gradual changes in the type and intensity of exercise to minimize muscle fatigue and potential cramps. Being in good physical condition also helps keep the cramps away.

Older adults are more likely to get muscle cramps because of normal muscle loss that comes with aging, the AAOS says.

You may be able to prevent some cramps by drinking plenty of fluids and getting enough food and beverages that contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are the minerals potassium, sodium and chloride that permit the body's cells to exchange fluids properly. Eat a balanced diet, and you should have no shortage of electrolytes. See your health care provider if your cramps are severe, persistent, frequent or unresponsive to simple treatments, as it may be an indication of a more serious medical condition.  

When cramps strike

Try gently stretching the muscle and hold the stretch. Massaging may help. Apply pressure and gently stretch the muscle. If the cramp strikes at night, run a hand towel under hot water and wrap it tightly around the cramped muscle. Within about a minute the muscle will relax and the knot will disappear.

Back to top