Muscle Cramps: Remedies and Treatments
Something as simple as heat or massage can quickly take care of muscle cramps. Once the agony is over, it's important to mount an anti-cramp campaign
What are muscle cramps?
If your calves cramp painfully when you're trying to sleep, or a muscle often locks up for no apparent reason, the root cause is a faulty chemical signal from the nervous system that "tells" the muscle to contract. Your body is probably yearning for potassium, magnesium and calcium—the trio of minerals that helps to regulate activity in your nerves and muscles.
You have plenty of potassium if you eat fruit and vegetables, but you may lack potassium if you're on a high-protein diet. You'll also need to drink plenty of water and exercise regularly.
Natural remedies for muscle cramps
- Mix 1 part oil of wintergreen (available from pharmacies or essential oils suppliers) with 4 parts vegetable oil and massage it into the cramp. Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate (related to aspirin), which relieves pain and stimulates bloodflow. You can use this mixture several times a day, but not with a heating pad—it could burn your skin (Caution: Note that wintergreen is highly toxic when swallowed)
- Crampbark has long been used as a muscle relaxant. A medical herbalist can make up both a tonic to be taken internally and a rubbing lotion from this herb
- Take a long, warm shower or soak in the bath. For added relief, pour in half a cup of Epsom salts. The magnesium in Epsom salts promotes muscle relaxation
- Place an electric heating pad or a hot face washer on the troublesome muscle to relax the cramp and increase blood flow to the affected tissue. Set the pad on low, apply for 20 minutes, then remove it for at least 20 minutes before reapplying
- Find the central point of the cramp. Press this spot with your thumb, the heel of your hand or a loosely clenched fist. Hold the pressure for 10 seconds, ease off for 10 seconds, then press again. You should feel some discomfort but not excruciating pain. After repeating this action several times, the pain should start to diminish
Muscle cramps from dehydration
Cramps are often caused by dehydration, so if you get cramps frequently, drink more water. If you tend to get cramps during exercise, drink at least 2 cups of water 2 hours before each work-out. Then, stop and drink 100–250ml every 10 to 20 minutes during your exercise sessions.
If you sweat a lot, consider a sports drink, such as Lucozade Sport, that replaces lost sodium and other electrolytes.
Minerals that prevent muscle cramps
Low levels of minerals known as electrolytes, which include potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium, can contribute to cramps. You probably don't need more sodium (salt) in your diet, but you may need other minerals. Good food sources of magnesium are wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and beans. Potassium is in most fruits and vegetables, especially bananas, oranges and apricot, and dairy foods supply calcium.
If you change your diet and you still get cramps, take 500mg of calcium and 500mg of magnesium twice a day, adding up to 1000mg of each supplement, or as professionally prescribed. Some people who get leg cramps due to a magnesium deficiency obtain rapid relief from supplements. Don't take magnesium without calcium: the two minerals work as a pair.
If you take diuretics for high blood pressure, your increased need to urinate may be robbing you of potassium. The result is a condition called hypokalemia, which can cause fatigue, muscle weakness and muscle cramps. Ask your doctor if you can switch to a blood-pressure medication that isn't a diuretic.
Muscle cramps at night
Drink a glass of tonic water, which contains quinine, before bedtime. Research supports the use of quinine for nocturnal leg cramps, but don't take it as tablets; they can have serious side effects, such as ringing in the ears and disturbed vision.
To prevent night-time calf cramps, try not to sleep with your toes pointed. And don't tuck in your sheets too tightly as this tends to bend your toes downwards, causing cramp. Take 250mg of vitamin E a day to improve arterial blood flow, thus potentially preventing night-time leg cramps.
Severe muscle cramps
Muscle cramps are usually temporary and don't cause permanent damage, but contact your doctor if the cramp or spasm lasts for more than a day, or if it continues to bother you despite trying these home remedies. And call immediately if the spasm occurs in the lower back or neck, accompanied by pain that radiates down your leg or into your arm. Finally, if abdominal cramps occur in the lower right hand part of your belly, it could signal appendicitis.
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Banner photo: Remedies and treatments for muscle cramps (credit: Ketut Subiyanto (Pexels))
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