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Muscle spasms and cramps

You could be out for a run or drifting off to sleep when it happens: the muscles of your calf or foot suddenly become hard, tight and extremely painful. You are having a muscle cramp.

Cramps are caused by muscle spasms, involuntary contractions of one or more muscles. In addition to the foot and calf muscles, other muscles prone to spasms include the front and back of the thigh, the hands, arms, abdomen and muscles along the ribcage.

Almost everyone experiences muscle cramps, which come without warning. What causes them, and what can you do to relieve them?

Possible causes of muscle cramps

Muscle cramps can have many possible causes. They include:

  • Poor blood circulation in the legs
  • Overexertion of the calf muscles while exercising
  • Insufficient stretching before exercise
  • Exercising in the heat
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Magnesium and/or potassium deficiency
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Malfunctioning nerves, which could be caused by a problem such as a spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in the neck or back
  • a side effect of medication

Treatment of a muscle spasm

When muscle cramps occur there are several things you can do to help ease them, such as massaging, stretching or icing the muscle, warming the muscle, or taking a bath with Epsom salts.

For a cramp in the calf or the back of the thigh (hamstring), try putting your weight on the affected leg and bending your knee slightly, or sit or lie down with your leg out straight and pull the top of your foot towards your head. For a cramp in the front of the thigh (quadriceps), hold on to a chair to steady yourself and pull your foot back towards your bottom.

To help reduce the risk of cramps in the future try the following:

  • Eat more foods rich in vitamins and calcium
  • Stay well hydrated
  • Stretch properly before exercise

In most cases self-care measures are sufficient for dealing with muscle cramps, which typically go away within minutes. However, if you experience them frequently or for no apparent reason, you should seek medical advice. They could signal a medical problem that requires treatment.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 27, 2012

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