Understanding leg cramps – Part 1.
Leg cramps causes and solutions. Part 1.
Hello Hercules subscribers and welcome to some more wisdom from The Flying Physios. Today’s article focusses on Leg cramps, something we as runners, riders and active individuals suffer from at some point in our sporting endeavours. It’s also something we at TFP tend to see a lot of at our race clinics following 10K and especially half marathons. Here we discuss what cramps are and by understanding this we lead on to ways of treating but more importantly preventing a cramping episode from happening in the first place
What are leg cramps?
Basically cramps are an involuntary action by your muscle- a spasm- which involves one or more muscles contracting too hard. Key hotspots for cramps are your calves, behind/below the knee, your foot, the front and back of the thigh, hands, arms and abdomen. We mostly see cramps in the calf or foot. Most cramping episodes are classed as spasms and because spasms tend to be a result of the body guarding itself we can potentially see cramps as a way of your body letting you now there is a problem, be it down to exertion, a nervous system issue, dietary issues or possibly as a result of disease.
A cramp typically lasts a few minutes but it can last a matter of a few seconds. We have known them last 10 minutes, heaven forbid. The severity of the pain can vary with the muscle remaining tender some 24 hours after the initial complaint. If they don’t get you following a long run then they tend to visit late at night in bed- which are labelled as night cramps.
Who gets leg cramps?
You, me, everybody! We see runners and riders with long term cramping issues fairly regularly and certainly in our post race massage clinics. Being a seasoned runner or rider can play a part in limiting episodes if you listen to your body. Older individuals tend to suffer more often with 1 in 3 over 60 and around 50% of people over 80 suffering regularity. It is also known for individuals to suffer 3 to 4 attacks a week whilst some will cramp everyday.
What are the possible causes?
We say ‘possible’ causes simply because the root cause can often be hard to identify. There can be one or a number of factors involved in you suffering a cramp so see which ones you feel may apply to you.
Possibly causes include:
- overexertion of the muscle whilst training or competing
- insufficient preparation for an activity- not stretching is an example
- exercising in the heat
- poor blood circulation in the legs or other parts of the body
- muscle fatigue
- nerve impingement
- magnesium or potassium deficiency
- calcium deficiency
The fact is one or more of these conditions may apply to you so it pays not to ignore them.
How to treat an attack of the cramps?
Stretching and massaging the affected muscle can usually relieve an attack of cramp. Most cramps soon ease off. Painkillers are not usually helpful as they do not act quickly enough. However, a painkiller such as paracetamol may help to ease muscle discomfort and tenderness that sometimes persists for up to 24 hours after a cramp has gone.
An immediate remedy that can help with the sudden onset is to activate the opposite muscle to the one that has cramped. By ‘activating’ we mean use it. For example, cramping of the calf muscle can be alleviated by pointing your toes up wards towards your head. This activates the opposing muscle to the calf (the one on the front of your shin) which makes the cramped muscle relax and elongate with a little effort. Having someone to help with this process is often advised as to be honest you may not feel up to the effort during an attack.
How to prevent them in the first place.
If cramps don’t occur often then no particular treatment is usually required. But for frequent cramping consider the following:
- If overexertion is causing the problem then wind back the amount of training you are doing and assess muscle imbalances that may be occurring in the region and the body as a whole as this may be a root cause.
- If a lack of stretching is a key factor then consult someone who can offer advice on an effective stretching regime.
- If you tend to cramp during the hot weather then prepare for it by taking on fluids that will replenish your body and limit the opportunity for cramping. Dehydration is a key reason for cramps appearing.
- If you tend to cramp due to poor circulation in your legs then maybe it is worth investing in a massage as a part of your training regime.
- If you think your nervous system may be the issue then you need to consult a professional to determine your suspicions. A heath screening from a Physio can help to determine a course of action.
- If fatigue is a key reason for you suffering repeated cramping attacks then look at your diet. Deficiency in Potassium or magnesium for example can play a part in the regularity of your cramping attacks.
So if you are regularly suffering cramping episodes then digest the info above and put it into play. In the next instalment of our advice on dealing with cramps we will look at alternative options for individuals who suffer from the chronic cramping or seeking alternative remedies. Bye for now from The Flying Physios and remember we are always on hand for treatment and advice on 01727 758846 or at firstname.lastname@example.org