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Muscle Cramps

It tends to happen suddenly. During a workout, one of your muscles is seized with a strong, painful contraction. If you're lucky, it will only last a few seconds, but bad ones can go on for several minutes. When it's over, the soreness in your muscle can last for hours.

I'm talking about a muscle cramp or "charley horse." If you get an exercise-related muscle cramp, there are four simple things you can do to help relieve the pain.

  1. Stop the activity that triggered the cramp.

  2. Gently massage and stretch the cramping muscle. Hold it in the stretched position until the cramp stops.

  3. Drink water or a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink.

  4. If the muscle is tight and rigid, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends applying heat. If the muscle is tender, sore, or potentially inflamed, applying ice may help.

Nobody is absolutely certain why muscle cramps occur, but medical researchers have been able to come up with a list of possible contributing factors.

  • Dehydration
  • Deficiencies in Iron, Calcium and/or Potassium
  • Inadequate Stretching
  • Lack of Oxygen to the Muscle
  • Muscle Fatigue, Overuse or Injury

The people at greatest risk of cramps include infants and young children, people over age 65, those who are ill, overweight, or on some medications. Seasonal athletes are also prone to cramps at the beginning of the season because their bodies aren't yet conditioned and are more prone to fatigue.

Exercise-related muscle cramps can often be traced back to dehydration (loss of water), low levels of potassium and muscle strain. As the weather warms up, your body loses water, minerals and salt through sweating. Drinking plenty of water and eating foods rich in potassium such as bananas, sweet potatoes or tomatoes help ward off cramps for many.

Muscle cramps can also be the result of overexertion, especially if you're starting a new workout program. When you overwork your body, you deplete the muscle's oxygen supply, which can lead to a spasm. Once the spasm begins, your spinal cord stimulates the muscle to keep contracting and it becomes a cramp. To avoid cramping, take any new exercise program slowly. Warm-up before your workout and cool down with stretches when you're done.

If you're a person who cramps frequently, you may have to approach prevention more aggressively. In a study conducted in 2005 at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, researchers found that drinking a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage before and during exercise DOUBLED the amount of time the subjects could work out before muscle cramps occurred. Be sure to drink fluids at least 30 minutes before your exercise session.

Call your doctor or health care provider if your muscle cramps exhibit any of the following symptoms.

  1. The pain persists for more than 10 or 15 minutes and isn't relieved by simple stretching.

  2. There is a feeling of heat or pain following the course of a vein in your arm or leg, particularly if there is any visible redness in the area.

  3. An unusual color, numbness or cold feeling in your arms or legs.

  4. Swelling in the arms, legs, hands or feet.

  5. Repeated or severe cramps even with moderate exercise like walking.

Not all muscle spasms are cramps. There are also muscle twitches and muscle shakes.

Muscle Twitching is what happens when a small muscle jumps or shakes under the skin. It's known as a "fasciculation" and usually isn't painful. Fasciculations generally occur around the eye, in the muscle of the hand between the thumb and index finger, and in the feet.

Muscle Shaking is a sign of fatigue in your central nervous system. When you exercise, your central nervous system has to generate more electrical energy than usual to stimulate muscle contractions. As your nerves and muscle fiber tire, alternate units "switch on" to maintain the force necessary to complete the lift. It's this fluctuating electrical current your body is sending out that causes the shakes.

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