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A muscle cramp — the sudden involuntary contraction of one or more muscle groups — usually results in intense pain. The exact cause of muscle cramps is unknown. However, overuse, heat, dehydration, and salt and mineral depletion are considered triggers. In general, overuse, injury, and exercise in hot weather often lead to cramps. Occasionally, muscle cramps can signal other serious medical conditions, such as narrowing of the arteries to the legs (atherosclerosis), nerve compression because of lumbar spine narrowing (spinal stenosis), or potassium depletion.
Just about everyone experiences muscle cramps in their lifetime. They often occur when you’re exercising, although they can happen while you’re sitting or sleeping. They are very common in endurance athletes and other people who perform strenuous activities. Athletes most often experience muscle cramps in the preseason of their sport, when their bodies are not yet conditioned. The most commonly affected muscles are the lower leg (calf) and the thigh (hamstring and quadriceps).
Muscle cramps usually go away on their own and don’t require medical treatment. There are a few things you can do to help relieve the pain and even prevent the cramps. The most important home-care management technique is to stay hydrated with salt-replenishing fluids. Other methods you can use to get rid of your cramps include:
- Gentle stretching and massaging of the cramping muscle
- Holding the muscle in a stretched position until the cramp stops
- Applying heat to tense or tight muscles or cold to sore or tender muscles
Regular flexibility exercises can also help you prevent cramps from starting. Flexibility exercises are best done before and after you work out to stretch muscle groups that are prone to cramping.
Please see your doctor if your muscle cramps are severe, occur often, respond poorly to treatment, or have no obvious cause. Your doctor may choose to evaluate for possible problems with circulation, nerves, medications, or nutrition.