What is a muscle cramp?
A muscle cramp happens when a muscle contracts suddenly and uncontrollably. These cramps, also called muscle spasms or charley horses, can occur in one or more muscles at a time. They can be painful, but they usually only last from a few seconds to 15 minutes.
Muscle cramps can be a symptom of many different medical issues. They are often associated with muscle strain, but they can also be a sign of medical conditions such as circulation problems and liver disease.
Muscle cramps can interfere with your daily activities. Because they often happen at night, they can affect your sleep. As a result, they may reduce your quality of life. But in most cases, muscle cramps are not serious.
Who is affected by muscle cramps?
Muscle cramps are very common. Anyone can develop one, but they happen more often in people who are:
What are the possible causes of muscle cramps?
Doctors do not always know what causes a muscle cramp. When your healthcare provider can’t find a specific cause, the cramps are called idiopathic. There are actually many different medical disorders that can cause this symptom. Conditions and circumstances that may cause muscle cramps include:
- Aging: Over time, losing muscle mass can put more strain on your muscles. These changes can lead to more frequent muscle cramps as you age.
- Dehydration: Losing body fluids while exercising (especially in hot temperatures) can cause muscles to cramp.
- Hypothyroidism: Having a thyroid gland that is less active than normal can lead to muscle cramps.
- Low electrolyte levels: Low levels of substances such as calcium or potassium in the blood can cause muscle cramps.
- Medication: Taking certain medicines, including pseudoephedrine (a drug used to treat nasal congestion) and statins (medications that treat high cholesterol), can cause involuntary muscle cramping.
- Nerve disorders: In rare cases, issues such as a pinched nerve or spinal cord injury can cause nerve compression (pressure on nerves), which can lead to muscle cramps.
- Physical strain: Overusing your muscles during exercise or strenuous activities can lead to cramps.
- Pregnancy: Often, women who are pregnant experience leg cramps due to low electrolyte levels, circulation changes, and pressure on the nerves caused by the growing baby.
- Tight muscles: Inactivity and not enough stretching can cause muscles to contract (clench) involuntarily.
Muscle cramps can happen in any muscle of your body. They occur most often in the:
- Abdomen (belly).
How are muscle cramps diagnosed?
Most muscle cramps don’t require a visit to your doctor. If you have frequent or severe muscle cramps, your doctor may investigate the cause with a physical exam.
To look for muscle issues, your doctor will feel and move the areas where you have cramps. He or she will ask about work and other activities that may trigger muscle cramps.
Your doctor may also use blood and urine tests to find the cause of muscle cramps. These tests can identify underlying conditions such as liver or kidney disease that may cause cramps.
In rare cases, your doctor may use an imaging test called an MRI to see if neurological (nerve) problems are the cause of leg cramps.
Care and Treatment
How are muscle cramps managed or treated?
Muscle cramps usually go away without medical treatment. You can relieve the pain associated with most muscle cramps on your own at home.
What can I do to prevent or relieve muscle cramps?
Steps you can take at home to prevent or relieve muscle cramps may include:
- Applying heat or ice to the muscle.
- Avoiding drinking caffeine.
- Drinking plenty of water before and during exercise.
- Getting regular exercise to prevent leg cramps at night.
- Gently massaging the cramped muscle until the cramping stops.
- Stopping the activity that caused the cramp.
- Stretching muscles before and after exercise.
If you have cramps at night (nocturnal cramps), nightly stretching before bed can be helpful. Stretching can avoid overnight cramps.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor?
Contact your doctor if you have muscle cramps that are severe or frequent enough to interfere with your quality of life or ability to sleep. Also check with a doctor if cramps:
- Last longer than 10 minutes.
- Don’t improve even with exercise, massage and good hydration.
- Occur after you may have come in contact with an infectious agent or toxin (like chemicals or medications).