Leg cramps. What causes and how to stop them?

What are leg cramps?

If you do not have it already, you will probably experience leg cramps at some point in your life. They can strike at the worst moment; whether you are lying in bed at night or in full exercise, this sharp pain can become totally incapacitating. If these leg cramps persist, they can become even more irritating by upsetting your workout and sleep habits.

A cramp is a sharp, sudden contraction or tightening of the muscle (in the calf), which usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. If a cramp hits, you can relieve it in the moment by gently stretching the muscle. To find a long-term solution to cramps, you may need to take a closer look at their many potential causes.

To protect yourself from cramps, make sure you nourish your body and get enough rest.

You will also seek to identify underlying medical conditions that could be contributing to leg cramps, such as peripheral arterial disease or thyroid problems. Consult a doctor when cramps prevent you from exercising, or if they seem to occur spontaneously without a trigger.

Here are main reasons for which you may experience cramps ...



One of the classic causes of cramps is dehydration. "Amateur and professional athletes deal with cramps all the time," says Mark D. Peterson, Ph.D., assistant professor of research at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan Medical School, "especially during the summer months, with high heat and not enough liquid. "The reason why dehydration causes cramps is largely theoretical," says Todd J. Sontag, DO, MD, Orlando Health Physician Associates, "It may be that fluid exhaustion causes sensitivity of nerve endings," triggering contractions in the space around the nerve and increasing pressure on the motor nerve endings, "he says. This exhaustion is aggravated by the heat conditions or the exercise itself, since you lose more fluid because of sweat.




Mineral deficiency

It is not only water that you lose but also electrolytes. A imbalance certain electrolytes and other minerals may trigger spontaneous cramps. An imbalance in the sodium, calcium, magnesium or potassium could lead to cramps, says Gerardo Miranda-Comas, MD, associate director of the sports medicine fellowship program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The sports drinks can help reduce cramps with their sodium. You also need to eat wisely. The bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, yogurt and nuts are rich in these muscle minerals and can prevent deficiencies that could cause leg cramps.


Excessive training

Regardless of the hydration status of an athlete, cramps can be due to excessive training. "If you go long distances, or if you do training camps, you may experience cramps later," says Peterson. "The nervous system is usually the culprit." When the nerves that connect the brain and the spinal cord to muscle become overexcited, you often end up with a cramp. The rest and stretching are particularly important in these situations.


Intensity of the exercise

When you try to shake up your routine by increasing your mileage in running, cycling or starting to swim (to prepare for a triathlon for example), your muscles are not automatically prepared for these new intensity and these movements. "Whenever cramps are caused by starting or restarting an exercise, it usually means" too much too soon "says Dr. Miranda-Comas." Your muscles do not act the same way when you jog or do sprinting, for example. So any increase in volume or intensity of training can cause cramps. "


You may be more prone to cramps when you are already "overloaded". You may be more lax in your diet, forget to hydrate effectively, or your body has not had enough time to recover correctlyt was your last exercise ... "Physiologically, when the muscle is tired, it is not as synchronized in the assimilation of nutrients," said Dr. Miranda-Comas. In other words, a tired muscle loses more nutrients than it uses, so it doesn't work at its peak. Night or night cramps, which affect more than half the adults, can also be triggered by fatigue. "While there is not a definitive cause [for night leg cramps], it is likely to be associated with muscle fatigue and nervous dysfunction," says Dr. Sontag. "There is also recent research that suggests that athletes who performed higher intensity exercise than normal had an increased incidence of night leg cramps."



If there is no obvious cause for your leg cramps, perhaps you should take a look at recent additions to your medication list, says Dr. Sontag. Diuretics, used to lower blood pressure, can cause cramps because they deplete the body of fluid and salts, he explains. Other drugs can cause leg cramps. As examples, raloxifene and teriparatide against osteoporosis; ferric sucrose (used intravenously to treat anemia); albuterol or Ventolin for asthma; estrogens (used to treat menopause); painkillers such as naproxen and pregabalin, statins against cholesterol, .... Talk to your doctor if you have started taking a new medicine and you experience leg cramps; Dr. Sontag says he is usually able to find an alternative medication for his patients.


Medical conditions

If your leg cramps seem spontaneous and are not related to exercise, it is important to consult your doctor. Some, for example, "which affect how the body moves electrolytes," says Dr. Miranda-Comas, can cause leg cramps. Others, such as peripheral arterial disease affect blood flow, which can in turn trigger cramps because there may not be enough blood for the legs. Osteoarthritis, neuropathy, and thyroid problems can also contribute to leg cramps, says Dr. Sontag.

So always check with a doctor if you have unresolved cramps, especially with nutrition, hydration and adequate stretching.

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