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Ouch! When Muscle Cramp Strikes

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You might be swimming laps, striding on an elliptical machine or even sleeping. Suddenly, you feel an intense, painful contraction in your calf or foot. You have a muscle cramp, and your exercise session or peaceful rest has just been involuntarily interrupted.

Protein, contained in virtually every cell in your body, supports the growth and strength of your muscles, ligaments, organs, skin, blood, glands and more. Its importance to a healthy body can be found in the Greek word it comes from, meaning "primary."

The pain of a cramp can grip you for just a few seconds or up to 15 minutes or longer. Your affected muscle may get hard or bulge and remain feeling sore for hours after that.

There are lots of myths about cramps, in part because medical science still can't explain exactly what causes them. Muscle fatigue, dehydration and prolonged sitting are among the possible triggers. Some people are especially prone to muscle cramps, including endurance athletes, older people and those receiving hemodialysis treatments.

You can recover more quickly from the grip of a cramp and possibly even avoid future ones with these tips:

- When a cramp strikes, immediately stretch and massage the muscle until the cramping stops.

- For a calf cramp, hold your toes and pull them up toward your knee.

- A hot shower, heating pad or warm bath will also help, as will an ice massage directly on the affected muscle.

- Drink water and other fluids frequently, especially when exercising or working in a hot environment (indoors or outside).

- Drink before you get thirsty.

- Choose fruit juice or a sports beverage if you are sweating for an hour or more.

- Do leg-stretching exercises in the morning and evening to combat nighttime cramps.

- Stretch before and after physical activity.

- To stretch the calf muscle, stand and lunge forward with one leg. Straighten the rear leg to press the heel to the floor. Hold the stretch briefly and release. Then change legs and repeat.

- See your health care professional if you have frequent cramps.


Miles MP, Clarkson PM. "Exercise-Induced Muscle Pain, Soreness and Cramps." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 34(3): 203-216, 1994.

"Muscle Cramp." American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/fact/thr_report.cfm?Thread_ID=270&topcategory=Sports

Bentley S. "Exercise-Induced Muscle Cramp. Proposed Mechanisms and Management." Sports Medicine, 21(6): 409-420, 1996.

"Nocturnal Leg Cramps." Postgraduate Medicine, 3(2), 2002.

"Muscle Cramps." MedlinePlus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003193.htm

Mandal AK, Abernathy T, Nelluri SN, Stitzel V. "Is Quinine Effective and Safe in Leg Cramps?" Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 35(6): 588-593, 1995.

© 2007 National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. (NWHRC) All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the NWHRC. 1-877-986-9472 (tollfree). On the Web at: www.healthywomen.org.

Link to article: http://www.healthywomen.org/articles/ouch_nwhrc.html

(from the National Women's Health Resource Center's e-newsletter HealthyWomen Take 10)

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.