Have you ever been woken up by intense cramping in your calf, or maybe had a flare-up following a long walk?
Muscle cramps can hit hard and fast, sometimes leaving you confused and in intense pain for several minutes.
The muscles in your legs are made from bundles of fiber that alternately expand and contract to stimulate movement. There are plenty of moving pieces in every step you take, just in your legs alone. And sometimes they can cramp up.
A cramp is an involuntary tightening of one of your leg muscles, most commonly the calf (the muscle in the lower half of the back of your leg). It can be a sudden, painful spasm (called a charley horse), and cramps can last for a few seconds to several minutes. They can vary in severity too.
Sometimes they don’t have an easily identifiable cause. Although exercise is a common trigger, especially if performed for an extended period or in the heat, it’s not the only cause.
A lack of dietary magnesium or potassium can lead to cramping by preventing your muscles from fully relaxing. Age can also be a risk factor. Older muscles get tired more easily and are more sensitive to lower fluid levels in the body. Statin medications, used to treat cholesterol, can also boost the risk for muscle cramps.
Cramps will go away on their own, likely in a few minutes, most of the time. Sometimes massaging or gently stretching the muscle can help it quickly relax. Heat can also help it relax. Applying a heating pad or warm wet cloth may help soothe the pain.
You can prevent muscle cramps – or at least lower the risk – by making sure to stay adequately hydrated and adjusting fluid intake to activity levels and temperature. You can also make sure you’re regularly including potassium and magnesium-rich foods in your diet.
If you’re exercising and hydrating, also try and warm up before exercise with a light walk, and be sure to stretch after. Those practices can be a big help in reducing cramp risk.