Have you ever had to stop mid-jog due to that sharp, knife-like pain in your side or felt a jerking spasm in your calf muscle right before going to bed?
If so, you’ve experienced some of the most pervasive muscle cramps. Although the exact cause of muscle cramps varies, many people experience the tense, tight, and aching sensations that happen when your muscle contracts and can’t seem to relax.
Dr. Martin P. Schwellnus told the New York Times cramps are common among athletes, with 39 percent of marathon runners and 60 percent of cyclists experiencing them at some point. However, people who are less active also get them, and cramps tend to increase with age.
Despite their prevalence, cramps are still a bit of a mystery in the medical community. No one knows what really causes them, but doctors have a few good guesses:
- Loss of electrolytes
- Reduced blood flow
- Problems with nerve signals
- Some medications
Since the true cause of cramps is still up in the air, finding a definite solution to prevent them is also a bit difficult. However, based on the research so far, these are the 5 best ways to prevent and stop muscle cramps.
1. Drink plenty of water
Water is life, especially for humans. Your body is about 60 percent water, which is why it’s so important for normal functioning. This means it’s also very easy to become dehydrated – if you lose even 1.5 percent, you can start to suffer the effects of mild dehydration, which includes muscle cramps.
So just how much water should you drink?
How much water you need depends on many factors, especially your activity level. However, just living uses up a decent amount of water, since your body uses it for most of its functions, even breathing.
In general, the Institute of Medicine recommends men drink 13 cups, and women 9 cups of water each day. Right now, most Americans average just 3.9 cups of water, so there’s a pretty high chance dehydration could be causing your muscle cramps.
2. Get Enough Electrolytes
If you are exercising, dehydration isn’t the only thing that contributes to muscle cramps. When your body heats up, as it does during physical activity, you sweat. This helps regulate your body temperature by cooling you down.
However, sweat also depletes your body of electrolytes – sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Athletes often get cramps because they lose a lot of sodium when they sweat. In some cases of severe cramping, athletes lose as much as 20 or even 30 percent of their exchangeable sodium just by sweating.
If you aren’t a professional athlete, you probably don’t have to worry about losing quite so much sodium, but electrolytes are still something you should keep in mind if you’re exercising for over an hour.
Studies show staying hydrated and consuming enough electrolytes, especially salt, during and after a long workout can help prevent cramps, so grab a sports drink before you hit the gym.
3. Don’t Over Exert Yourself
Many people get cramps while they’re working out or afterward, even if they’re hydrated and have enough electrolytes. In this case, the cramps are probably caused by overexertion.
Dr. Kevin Miller told New York Times blogger Gretchen Reynolds that studies comparing drinking water to drinking pickle juice to treat cramps have been eye-opening. Many people reduce cramps immediately when they drink pickle juice, even though they haven’t had any time to digest it. Obviously, something else is going on.
Dr. Miller believes pickle juice might work better than just drinking water because it could help reset your nerves. Many cramps probably come from fatigue. When muscles are tired, nerves may start sending the wrong signals, causing muscles to tense when they should relax. Hence, cramps.
In this case, the best way to prevent cramps is training properly and listening to your body so you don’t overexert yourself. If you do get a cramp, though, a little pickle juice might do the trick.
4. Stay Active
You don’t have to be an athlete or very active to get a cramp. Even people who spend most of their time sitting get them. Obviously, losing too many electrolytes by sweating or overexerting yourself at the gym isn’t the source of their pain.
When you move, your muscles contract and expand. Since most people spend their days in predictable positions, usually sitting, your muscles tend to develop a kind of comfort zone – a more limited range of movement. They also have poor circulation, which deprives them of oxygen, causing lactic acid to build up and cause tension.
This can lead to aches, spasms, low muscle mass, and cramping. Staying active will help improve your muscle mass and improve your range of motion, ultimately helping prevent cramps.
5. Stretch Often
Most doctors recommend stretching regularly to prevent cramps. Although there’s surprisingly little scientific evidence to prove stretching works, stretching makes a lot of sense.
Stretching trains your muscles to extend farther. Increasing your range of motion can prevent injury by allowing your muscles to move more freely. When you have a muscle cramp, you can also treat it by lightly stretching and massaging the muscle.
The key to relieving the cramp and the accompanying pain is to release the tension, in part, by extending or stretching the muscle to release it.
Since cramps are surprisingly complex, and little understood, these 5 best ways to prevent and stop muscle cramps are probably just the tip of the iceberg. While they should help you prevent muscle tension and relieve cramping, there might be a better way that researchers just haven’t discovered yet.
In the meantime, though, stick to the tried and true methods of athletes – drink plenty of water, make sure you have enough electrolytes, don’t overexert yourself, stay active, stretch often, and maybe even drink a little pickle juice.
It’s also important to realize that while cramps are fairly common and most are normal, they could indicate an underlying medical issue. If your cramps don’t go away, are very painful, appear frequently, or interfere with your daily life, make sure to consult a doctor.