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Muscle cramps

Cramps - muscle

Muscle cramps are when a muscle gets tight (contracts) without you trying to tighten it, and it does not relax. Cramps may involve all or part of one or more muscles.

The most commonly involved muscle groups are:

  • Back of the lower leg/calf
  • Back of the thigh (hamstrings)
  • Front of the thigh (quadriceps)

Cramps in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.

Muscle cramps are common and may be stopped by stretching the muscle. The cramping muscle may feel hard or bulging.

Considerations

Muscle cramps are different than muscle twitches, which are covered in a separate article.

Causes

Muscle cramps are common and often occur when a muscle is overused or injured. Working out when you have not had enough fluids (dehydration) or when you have low levels of minerals such as potassium or calcium can also make you more likely to have a muscle spasm.

Muscle cramps can occur while you play tennis or golf, bowl, swim, or do any other exercise.

They can also be triggered by:

Home Care

If you have a muscle cramp, stop your activity and try stretching and massaging the muscle.

Heat will relax the muscle when the spasm begins, but ice may be helpful when the pain has improved.

If the muscle is still sore, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines can help with pain. If the muscle cramps are severe, your health care provider can prescribe other medicines.

The most common cause of muscle cramps during sports activity is not getting enough fluids. Often, drinking water will ease the cramping. However, water alone does not always help. Salt tablets or sports drinks, which also replenish lost minerals, can be helpful.

Other tips for relieving muscle cramps:

  • Change your workouts so that you are exercising within your ability.
  • Drink plenty of fluids while exercising and increase your potassium intake (orange juice and bananas are great sources of potassium).
  • Stretch to improve flexibility.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if your muscle cramps:

  • Are severe
  • Do not go away with simple stretching
  • Keep coming back
  • Last a long time

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, such as:

  • When did the spasms first begin?
  • How long do they last?
  • How often do you experience muscle spasms?
  • What muscles are affected?
  • Is the cramp always in the same location?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Have you been vomiting, had diarrhea, excessive sweating, excessive urine volume, or any other possible cause of dehydration?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • Have you been exercising heavily?
  • Have you been drinking alcohol heavily?

Blood tests may be done to check for the following:

  • Calcium, potassium, or magnesium metabolism
  • Kidney function
  • Thyroid function

Pain medicines may be prescribed.

References

Grove AJ, Gómez J. Environmental illness. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 25.

Wang LH, Lopate G, Pestronk A. Muscle pain and cramps. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 28.

    • Chest stretch

      Chest stretch - illustration

      Clasp your hands behind your back with your palms facing up. Pull your hands down and press your shoulder blades together. Your chest should stick out. Hold for 10-20 seconds. You should feel the stretch in your upper arms and chest.

      Chest stretch

      illustration

    • Groin stretch

      Groin stretch - illustration

      Stand with your legs wide apart. Shift your weight to one side, bending your knee somewhat. Do not let your knee bend beyond your ankle; in other words, you should be able to look down and still see your toes. You should feel the stretch in your opposite leg, which remains extended. Both of your feet stay flat on the ground facing forward. Hold for 10-20 seconds, then lean to the other side.

      Groin stretch

      illustration

    • Hamstring stretch

      Hamstring stretch - illustration

      Extend one leg in front of you with the foot flexed. Bend your other knee and lean back slightly. Your pelvis should be tilted forward. Keep your upper body upright as you hold the stretch for 10-20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel the stretch up the back of your extended leg (all the way up your calf and thigh). NOTE: Your supporting leg may get tired, as you have to balance your weight on it.

      Hamstring stretch

      illustration

    • Hip stretch

      Hip stretch - illustration

      Stand with one foot in front of you and your weight equally distributed between them. Bend both knees and lift your back heel off the ground. Bring your pelvis forward so your back is flat. (You can lean against a wall or column for balance.) Hold for 10-20 seconds, then repeat on other side. You should feel the stretch in the front of the hip and into your abdomen.

      Hip stretch

      illustration

    • Thigh stretch

      Thigh stretch - illustration

      Hold on to something for balance. Standing on one leg, grasp the foot of the other leg. Keep your knee pointing down. Pull up with light pressure. You do NOT need to pull up all the way to your buttocks. If it feels uncomfortable or painful, you are putting too much strain on the knee joint. Hold your foot behind you for 10-20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel the stretch in the front of the thigh.

      Thigh stretch

      illustration

    • Triceps stretch

      Triceps stretch - illustration

      Bring one of your elbows across your body, towards the opposite shoulder. Use your other hand to bring your elbow closer to your shoulder. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then switch sides. Alternate method: raise your arm over your head and bend your elbow all the way so your hand is behind your neck. Use your other arm to stabilize your elbow. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel either of these stretches in the back of your arm.

      Triceps stretch

      illustration

      • Chest stretch

        Chest stretch - illustration

        Clasp your hands behind your back with your palms facing up. Pull your hands down and press your shoulder blades together. Your chest should stick out. Hold for 10-20 seconds. You should feel the stretch in your upper arms and chest.

        Chest stretch

        illustration

      • Groin stretch

        Groin stretch - illustration

        Stand with your legs wide apart. Shift your weight to one side, bending your knee somewhat. Do not let your knee bend beyond your ankle; in other words, you should be able to look down and still see your toes. You should feel the stretch in your opposite leg, which remains extended. Both of your feet stay flat on the ground facing forward. Hold for 10-20 seconds, then lean to the other side.

        Groin stretch

        illustration

      • Hamstring stretch

        Hamstring stretch - illustration

        Extend one leg in front of you with the foot flexed. Bend your other knee and lean back slightly. Your pelvis should be tilted forward. Keep your upper body upright as you hold the stretch for 10-20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel the stretch up the back of your extended leg (all the way up your calf and thigh). NOTE: Your supporting leg may get tired, as you have to balance your weight on it.

        Hamstring stretch

        illustration

      • Hip stretch

        Hip stretch - illustration

        Stand with one foot in front of you and your weight equally distributed between them. Bend both knees and lift your back heel off the ground. Bring your pelvis forward so your back is flat. (You can lean against a wall or column for balance.) Hold for 10-20 seconds, then repeat on other side. You should feel the stretch in the front of the hip and into your abdomen.

        Hip stretch

        illustration

      • Thigh stretch

        Thigh stretch - illustration

        Hold on to something for balance. Standing on one leg, grasp the foot of the other leg. Keep your knee pointing down. Pull up with light pressure. You do NOT need to pull up all the way to your buttocks. If it feels uncomfortable or painful, you are putting too much strain on the knee joint. Hold your foot behind you for 10-20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel the stretch in the front of the thigh.

        Thigh stretch

        illustration

      • Triceps stretch

        Triceps stretch - illustration

        Bring one of your elbows across your body, towards the opposite shoulder. Use your other hand to bring your elbow closer to your shoulder. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then switch sides. Alternate method: raise your arm over your head and bend your elbow all the way so your hand is behind your neck. Use your other arm to stabilize your elbow. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then switch sides. You should feel either of these stretches in the back of your arm.

        Triceps stretch

        illustration

      Self Care

       

      Review Date: 6/28/2018

      Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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