Charley horse. Side stitch. Neck kink. Muscle cramps may go by many names, but if you’ve ever had one you know they’re no party. So why do muscle cramps happen in the first place, and what can you do to ease and prevent them? Here’s everything you need to know to keep your muscles from spasming.
What Is A Muscle Cramp, Exactly?
Your muscles are designed to contract and relax—and it’s these actions that allow us to eat, walk, get up off the toilet, crank out bicep curls, and more. When you experience a muscle cramp, your muscle contracts suddenly and involuntarily, which can be extremely painful. Usually, cramps last upwards of 15 seconds and can occur multiple times before finally stopping.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Typically, muscle cramps are caused by dehydration, physical exertion, and/or electrolyte imbalances. Since hydration impacts electrolyte balance and physical exertion impacts hydration levels, all three usually play a role.
Allow us to explain: Electrolytes are a group of minerals (including sodium, calcium, chloride, and potassium) whose main function is to help your body balance the fluid inside and outside its cells, explains Virginia-based dietitian Kristin Gillespie M.S., R.D., L.D.
This fluid balance is essential for healthy muscle function. “When the balance is off, your muscles receive less blood flow and less oxygen, which can cause cramps,” explains Lisa Richards C.N.C., nutritionist and founder of The Candida Diet. Essentially, out-of-balance electrolytes equal muscle cramps.
Read More: Are You Getting Enough Electrolytes?
And what causes electrolyte imbalance? Usually, dehydration. The most common culprit here is excessive sweating during exercise. (Inadequate water intake, excessive caffeine, diarrhea, and vomiting can all also contribute.) You see, when you sweat, it’s not just water that’s released from your pores, it’s electrolytes, too, Gillespie says. That’s why your sweat tastes and smells salty.
Ultimately, if you sweat a lot when you work out, you could be at risk for electrolyte imbalance. The risk is even greater if you exercise for a long period of time or in hot, hot, hot conditions. Often, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance also come along with symptoms like:
How To Prevent Future Cramps
The simplest way to prevent muscle cramping is to monitor your fluid and electrolyte levels and restore them as necessary.
Exactly how much water you need to consume each day depends on factors like your age, sex, activity level, health, medications, and even the weather. A good rule of thumb, according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is 125 and 91 ounces of fluids a day for men and women, respectively.
The American Council on Exercise also recommends drinking an additional 17 to 20 ounces two to three hours before working out, eight ounces 20 to 30 minutes before starting your workout, and then seven to 10 ounces for every 10 to 20 minutes of exercise.
As for those electrolyte stores? Prioritizing nutrient-dense foods (think spinach, kale, avocado, sweet potatoes, broccoli, beans, fish, and olives) in your daily diet should be enough to fight electrolyte imbalance, Richards says.
However, if you eat a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet and/or exercise vigorously or in extreme heat and still cramp up, consider supplementing with an electrolyte supplement, she adds. Ideally, choose a product that contains all of the main electrolytes: magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate.
What to Do If You Get A Cramp
If you do find yourself with a muscle cramp, try to (gently!) massage and stretch it until the cramping eases off.
Another common remedy: heat. Applying a heating pad or steaming towel or sitting in a hot bath for 15 to 20 minutes may help bring blood flow to the area and help the muscle relax, he says.
“You should also reach for your water bottle and a sugar-free sports drink or electrolyte mix,” he says. While these won’t cure the cramp that’s currently happening, it will decrease the risk that another one follows on its heels.
When To See A Doctor
While muscle cramps are typically harmless, they can indicate something more serious. Consistent cramping, for example, may be a sign of liver disease, kidney failure, or hyperthyroidism, says Gillespie.
Cramps are also a common side effect of certain medications, such as drugs prescribed to help lower cholesterol.
If you have frequent cramps, Gillespie recommends meeting with a healthcare practitioner to rule out any underlying conditions and review medications. From there, your doctor can check whether you have any electrolyte deficiencies that could be contributing to the muscle cramping.