Preventing Muscle Cramps

August 2, 2013 in STSMPT

Are you often bothered by muscle cramps, those painful, involuntary muscle contractions that sneak up during and after exercise? When cramps occur, the popular way to get rid of it is to stretch it out. This increases the tension in the muscle and prompts it to stop the involuntary contraction.

But what about preventing cramps in the first place? As common as they are and as painful as they can be, cramps seem to be a medical mystery. Few studies exist on the cause or the prevention of cramps, and the existing studies have differing recommendations on avoiding these pesky occurrences.

Some studies suggest staying hydrated as the best method for avoiding cramps.(1) Sports drinks are mentioned in a number of the studies as being advantageous because these drinks replenish your body’s electrolytes such as sodium which aids in decreasing cramps.(1,2) The sodium also helps with fluid retention.

Other researchers looked at increasing magnesium intake as a solution for these muscle spasms. Magnesium helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function in the body. In one study, participants were given either a magnesium supplement or a placebo and asked to record the number of cramps they suffered over 6 weeks.(3) There was a trend toward fewer cramps using the magnesium and 78% of the subjects on magnesium reported that the treatment had helped. Further evaluation was recommended on this topic but consuming foods that are rich in this mineral such as nuts and beans, or taking a magnesium supplement, can’t hurt.

Potassium is another of the body’s electrolytes that plays an important role in nerve function and muscle control.(4) Low potassium is also thought to cause muscle cramping especially in those who are very active. While specific research on this link between potassium deficiency and cramps is not abundant, it is a long held belief by many which explains why athletes reach for those bananas before competition. Consuming foods high in this mineral can aid with keeping your body’s potassium at the right level. While found in many different foods, potassium is most abundant in fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, and avocados to name a few. It can also be found in fish, meat, and dairy products. Refined items (oils, sugar, and fats) and processed food (fast food, canned or prepackaged) offer very little potassium intake and regular consumption of these types of products can lead to a potassium deficiency.

Then there is Dr. Martin Schwellnus and his combination approach for preventing cramps. He believes that cramps occur because of muscle fatigue and to combat this, the solution is to exercise less intensely and for shorter periods of time. He also advises having enough carbohydrates stored up for energy, to be adequately fit and trained, and to stretch often the muscles that give you trouble.(5)

What methods do you use to avoid muscle cramps?

1. Miller T, Layzer R. Muscle cramps. Muscle & Nerve. 2005; 32: 431-442.

2. Stofan J, Zachwieja J, Horswill C, et al. Sweat and sodium losses in NCAA football players: a precursor to heat cramps? International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2005; 15: 641-652.

3. Roffe C, Sills S, Crome P, Jones P. Randomised, cross-over, placebo controlled trial of magnesium citrate in the treatment of chronic persistent leg cramps. Medical Science Monitor. 2002; 8 (5): 326-330

4. Colorado State University: Potassium and the Diet Fact Sheet-

5. Schwellnus M. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC) – altered neuromuscular control, dehydration, or electrolyte depletion? British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2009; 43: 401-408.

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