Q: Why do muscle cramps usually happen without warning? What are some quick ways to get relief?
A: Just about everyone has muscle cramps at one time or another. And they become more common as we age. But the cause of most muscle cramps is unknown.
They may happen after physical exertion (especially if more intense or longer than usual). But no one knows why some people who exercise regularly are more likely to get muscle cramps while others are not.
In addition to advanced age, risk factors include pes planus (flat feet), lack of exercise, dehydration and diabetes. But plenty of people with these factors do not have muscle cramps. And most people with muscle cramps have none of these factors.
Some medications make you more prone to cramps. For example, diuretics (water pills) can lead to lower levels of blood electrolytes. Your doctor may order a blood test to check your potassium, calcium and magnesium levels. But for most people with muscle cramps, these test results are normal.
Learning some stretches now can help you prepare when the next muscle cramp strikes.
For nighttime leg cramps in the calf: Sit up in bed, loop the blanket around your foot, and gently pull your toes toward you while you keep the knee straight.
For hamstring cramps (in the back of the thigh), sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Slide your hands down your legs until you feel a burning sensation in the cramped muscle. Hold for 30 seconds, then slowly return to a sitting position.
For back cramps, use the “child’s pose.” Get on your hands and knees, then exhale. While keeping your hands flat on the floor in front of you, lower your hips backward until your buttocks rest on the backs of your heels and feet. Then, without moving your buttocks, lower your forehead to the floor and extend your arms in front of you, hands still flat on the floor. Hold for a few moments, and then inhale as you come back up.
After you've stretched the affected muscle, put a heating pad on the area to promote blood flow. Then gently massage it.
To help prevent muscle cramps, take time to stretch during the day, but only after you have been active and your muscles are warm. Stay well hydrated and make eating magnesium and potassium rich vegetables and fruits a priority.
Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.