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Back behind the wheel: Muscle cramps

It was a warm fall day last year and I was raking and bagging the fallen leaves on my front lawn. Just as I went to lift a bag full of leaves I felt this sharp gripping pain in my left calf muscle. Im...

It was a warm fall day last year and I was raking and bagging the fallen leaves on my front lawn. Just as I went to lift a bag full of leaves I felt this sharp gripping pain in my left calf muscle. Immediately, I fell to the ground in agony and tried to pull my toes back to stretch the muscle. To my great relief, the muscle slowly let go within a minute or so.

Most of us have experienced the panic and agony of a muscle cramp.

In this article I will briefly discuss what muscle cramps are, the causes of them, what you should do when you have one and ways to prevent them.

What are muscle cramps?

In everyday life when we use the muscles that we can voluntarily control such as our arms and legs, they alternately contract and relax causing movement in our limbs.

In addition, postural muscles such as those in our head, neck and trunk contract constantly in order to maintain our posture. In some instances a muscle may involuntarily (without consciously willing it) contract which is called a “spasm.”

If the spasm is severe and sustained, it is termed a cramp. Simplified, a muscle cramp is a sudden uncontrolled, sustained contraction of a muscle.

This type of pain is most commonly experienced in the legs, and therefore often called a leg cramp or “charley horse.” The most common muscles to contract in this manner are those which cross two joints.

These muscles include the calf (crossing the ankle and knee), the hamstring (crossing the knee and the hip), and the quadriceps (also crossing the knee and the hip). Leg cramps usually last less than one minute, but, may last several minutes before the contraction subsides.

In some patients, the leg cramps occur primarily at night, and can awake the patient from sleep.

Leg cramps are very common in the general population.

It is estimated that about 95 per cent of people will experience a cramp at some point during their lives.

Cramps are common in adults and become increasingly more frequent with age.

However, children also experience cramps.

What causes a muscle cramp?

Presently, the exact cause of muscle cramps in not well understood, but there are some risk factors which are thought to contribute to this condition:

* Muscle fatigue

* Heavy exercising

* Dehydration

* High weight

* Electrolyte imbalances

* Poor circulation

* Side effects of medication

Although there are several theorized causes for leg cramps, the most common seen typically in patients is exercising or performing a physical task such as gardening or painting in an unusual way, meaning at an increased intensity or duration.

How do I make a muscle cramp stop?

When a muscle cramp strikes, instinct usually takes over, and you massage and stretch the sore muscle.

Actually, this is the perfect remedy and in most causes resolves the problem. The proper sequence of steps are:

* Massage the cramped muscle

* Stretch the muscle GENTLY

* Take a hot shower or bath or use a heating pad to warm and relax the muscle.

It is important to note that if the cramps are severe, frequent, persistent and respond poorly to simple treatments, it is advisable for the patient to consult with his/her family physician for more intensive investigation including blood analysis.

As stated above, the possible causes of muscle cramps are extremely varied and include problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medication and nutrition and thus should be taken seriously.

How can I prevent leg cramps?

Stay Hydrated:The exact relationship between hydration and muscle cramps in unclear, however, it is known that dehydration can predispose an individual to muscle cramps.

Drink at least three full glasses of water each day, including one before going to sleep.

In addition, drink plenty of fluids before, during and after physical activity.

Stretch Regularly: Stretching can relax muscle fibers. It is a good idea to have a regular stretching routine which will reduce the risk of muscle cramps by increasing flexibility.

Increase Physical Activity Grad-ually: Avoid sudden increases in activity as this will not allow you muscles to compensate fully. Increase and modify activities gradually allowing your body to get use to one activity before moving onto the next.

So now you know what you can do to prevent those agonizing episodes of excruciating pain that last for a period of time that seems like eternity.

Until next month, take care and drive safely.

– Dr. Jerry Singh, B. Kin., D.C., runs Trans Canada Chiropractic at 230 Truck Stop in Woodstock, Ont. He can be reached at 1 888 252-7327, or e-mail

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