The best ways to avoid painful muscle cramps

A muscle cramps is a painful, sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle, and can happen to anyone without warning. They occur most commonly in muscles that cross two joints, such as the calves, hamstrings and quadriceps.

The exact cause of muscle cramps is not well understood, and there can be more than one contributing factor, including:

  • Sudden changes in an exercise routine, such as engaging in a new activity or increasing the intensity of your current workout, can cause muscles to be overused, contributing to cramping. This can affect the de-conditioned person attempting to do too much too soon, or in a well-conditioned athlete whose muscles are already overtrained and not given proper recovery time.

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  • Many people have experienced cramps while at rest, often waking during the night with severe muscle pain. These are very common, can happen at any age, and often occur in the legs or feet. They are especially frustrating because along with disrupting sleep, the person may find that they re-occur many times a night, or many nights each week. Although the cause cannot always be pinpointed, this type of cramp seems to be initiated when a sudden movement is made that shortens the muscle, such as inadvertently pointing the toe downward while lying in bed, shortening the calf muscle.
  • Muscle cramps and spasms may be brought on by electrolyte imbalances and dehydration. As you perspire, valuable body fluids, salt and minerals are lost. Therefore, staying hydrated before, during and after exercising is important. In cases where exercise is intense and of long duration, and where excess perspiration occurs, a sports drink designed specifically for replenishing electrolytes can help. Certain medical conditions as well as medications, can increase cramping.

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  • Heat cramps happen, too. An individual experiencing heat cramps complains of muscle twitching, cramping, and painful spasms of the muscles. Whatever muscles are used most often are the most susceptible. Spasms are caused by the failure of the body to replace lost body salts and usually occur after heavy sweating.
  • Nerve compression, poor circulation, pregnancy, sitting for extended periods of time, and age related muscle weakness can increase risk of cramps.

Gentle stretching and massage can help to increase flexibility and relax muscle cramps. Warming up before getting into the more intense part of a workout, and cooling down at the end for several minutes, can help lessen risk. Thankfully, the majority of muscle cramps resolve on their own, but if they become a persistent and recurring problem, it is important to consult with your doctor to rule out other possible causes.

Marjie Gilliam is an International Sports Sciences Master certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. Write to her in care of the Dayton Daily News, call her at (937) 878-9018 or send email to