Everyone has experienced muscle cramping at one time or another. Cramping is an involuntary contracted muscle that does not relax. It’s most common in the feet, calves and hamstrings but can happen in any muscle. Stretching usually relieves it and you move on with your activity and don’t think much more about it.
But what causes muscle cramping? It’s not just low levels of potassium or dehydration. There are numerous causes of muscle cramping or conditions where muscle cramping is a symptom:
-Overused or overstretched muscles become tired and run out of energy thus causing a forcible contraction. You see this occur in athletes or those doing strenuous activity in hot environments.
-Repetitive use of a muscle can cause cramping. For example, those who write a lot may get hand cramps.
-Doing a new activity too hard, too quickly. Performing 100 crunches if you’ve never done one before can cause abdominal cramping.
-Dehydration and depleted electrolytes can cause cramping though it’s not just potassium. Low levels of water, glucose, calcium, magnesium and sodium all play a role.
-Conditions such as Atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) and Restless Leg Syndrome can result in muscle cramping.
-Arthritis, Diabetes, Anemia, Kidney disease and hormone issues can all have muscle cramping as a symptom.
-Stress and Anxiety can cause cramping and spasms.
-Spine issues such as a herniated disc that compresses nerves can cause hamstring cramping.
Be sure to warm up before any exercise session and stay hydrated throughout especially if you are in a heated environment. If cramping still occurs, take a moment to stretch the area gently. Over-stretching can actually make the cramping worse and cause damage to the muscle. Move on from working that area for a bit to get the muscle to relax and go back to a normal state.
If stretching doesn’t alleviate it or you get recurring muscle cramps at times when you are fully hydrated it may be wise to visit your doctor to see if there is an underlying cause. A simple examination and some blood tests can rule out any issues.
Jessica Kuiken is a Los Angeles based Certified Pilates Instructor. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter