What is a Muscle Cramp?


Brian Killian

Has this ever happened to you? All snug in bed, deep in slumber, blissfully away with your sleep time thoughts, and then “WHAM!” Your calf muscle contracts into a tight small ball, the pain is intense and immediate, and you are rendered helpless knowing any small, movement   will only exaggerate the agony. Powerless and at the complete mercy to this mystery attack you slowly and carefully move your hand down to the muscle, carefully teasing the muscle, hoping for any relief from this unprovoked assault. I am not wishing you to experience this however muscle cramps are a common complaint and one I get asked about often.


So what is a muscle cramp?

I like this definition from the University of Maryland Medical Centre: "‘Muscle cramps are when a muscle gets tight (contracts) without you trying to do so. The muscle gets tight and does not relax. Cramps may involve all or part of one or more muscles."

Who gets muscle cramps?

Most people at some stage in life will experience a cramp, however some people get them more frequently. They are more common in older people. About 1 in 3 people over the age of 60, and about half of people over the age of 80, have regular leg cramps. About 4 in 10 people who have leg cramps have at least three per week. They occur every day in some people.

What causes a muscle to cramp?

Common in the leg, cramps are different to a condition called Restless Legs Syndrome. With this condition the legs can be uncomfortable, you feel creeping sensations in the legs, and it is relieved by walking about. Mostly the exact cause of a cramp is unknown however there are a few major contributors to rule out.

  • Dehydration: there is no doubt if you are dehydrated you are more prone to muscle cramps. For me this is the first recommendation to try if a client presents with cramping. To tell if you are hydrated check the colour of your urine; if it is clear to a pale straw colour all is well. If darker than that you will need more fluid.

  • Poor Circulation: another common cause for cramps is poor  blood supply. Circulation is often associated with lifestyle choices. Obesity, lack of exercise, and poor food choices all can contribute to less oxygen being delivered to all parts of the body, which can hinder the body’s ability to function normally

  • Mineral Imbalance: just about all of your body’s systems rely on micro-nutrients to function effectively and your muscular system is no different. Essentially your muscles rely on four nutrients to function; calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium.  Sodium and calcium work together to contract a muscle with potassium and magnesium working to relax a muscle. Ensuring you have sufficient supply of each of these nutrients in your diet will eliminate this as a caus

  • Medications: some medications be they over-the-counter, natural or pharmaceutical will cause muscles to cramp. If you feel this is the case please speak to your medical professional about this.

Night time cramps

One theory I enjoyed from a British medical site may explain why you often experience them in bed. The writer explains due to our natural sleeping position with knees slightly bent (flexed), and with feet pointing slightly downwards. The calf is already shortened and therefore more prone to cramp. The good news with cramping is for most they will be acute and relieve by themselves. However most of the time they can be prevented so my next post I will focus on a self- help guide to preventing and relieving cramp.

Wishing you great health and much happiness,

Important: This article is general advice only. For further advice or information on this topic, please consult your health professional.

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