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Muscle cramps

Muscle cramps are when a muscle gets tight (contracts) without you trying to do so. The muscle gets tight and does not relax. Cramps may involve all or part of one or more muscles.

The most commonly involved muscle groups are:

  • Back of the lower leg/calf
  • Back of the thigh (hamstrings)
  • Front of the thigh (quadriceps)

Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.

Muscle cramps are common and may be stopped by stretching the muscle. The cramping muscle may feel hard or bulging.

Alternative Names

Cramps - muscle

Considerations

Muscle spasms are different than muscle twitches , which are covered in a separate article.

Common Causes

Muscle cramps are common and often occur when a muscle is overused or injured. Working out when you haven't had enough fluids (dehydration) or when you have low levels of minerals such as potassium or calcium can also make you more likely to have a muscle spasm.

Muscle cramps can occur while you play tennis or golf, bowl, swim, or do any other exercise.

They can also be triggered by:

Home Care

If you have a muscle cramp, stop your activity and try stretching and massaging the  muscle.

Heat will relax the muscle when the spasm begins, but ice may be helpful when the pain has improved.

If the muscle is still sore, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications can help with pain. If the muscle cramps are severe, your health care provider can prescribe other medicines.

The most common cause of muscle cramps during sports activity is not getting enough fluids. Often, drinking water will ease the cramping. However, water alone doesn't always help. Salt tablets or sports drinks, which also replenish lost minerals, can be helpful.

Other tips for relieving muscle cramps:

  • Change your workouts so that you are exercising within your ability.
  • Drink plenty of fluids while exercising and increase your potassium intake (orange juice and bananas are great sources of potassium).
  • Stretch to improve flexibility.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor or nurse if your muscle cramps:

  • Are severe
  • Do not go away with simple stretching
  • Keep coming back
  • Last a long time

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your doctor or nurse will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, such as:

  • When did the spasms first begin?
  • How long do they last?
  • How often do you experience muscle spasms?
  • What muscles are affected?
  • Is it always the same location?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Have you been vomiting, had diarrhea , excessive sweating , excessive urine volume , or any other possible cause of dehydration?
  • What medications do you take?
  • Have you been exercising heavily?
  • Have you been drinking alcohol heavily?

Blood tests may be done to check for the following:

  • Calcium, potassium, or magnesium metabolism
  • Kidney function
  • Thyroid function

Pain medicines may be prescribed.

References

Wang LH, Pestronk A. Muscle pain and cramps In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 26.

Brinker MR, O'Connor DP, Almekinders LC, et al. Basic science and injury of muscle, tendon, and ligament. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr., Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2009:chap 1.

Updated: 8/14/2012

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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