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).
  • Arms.
  • Hands.
  • Feet.
  • Legs.
  • Ribcage.

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.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/10/2019.

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