Muscle cramps are experienced by most athletes at one time or another. Such cramps are an involuntary and usually painful contraction of a skeletal muscle, most often in a structure that is actively providing muscle power at the moment of the onset of the cramp. The surface of the affected area will present as hard and contracted, with the skin appearing as if drawn tight over the muscle. A muscle cramp will invariably occur without warning.
Muscle cramps are distinct from muscle twitches, another involuntary muscle action. Twitches are distinguishable from cramps by virtue of three features: their general isolation from the working muscles, an absence of pain when the twitch occurs, and the negligible impact of muscle twitching on performance. Twitches frequently occur in the eyelids and small muscle groups of the body. A twitch may be brought on by external pressures such as stress, or the excessive consumption of caffeine or other stimulants.
The cause of muscle cramps is variable, and the investigation to determine the basis for the occurrence will usually be linked to the nature of the activity and the environmental conditions in which the activity took place. The most common causes of muscle cramps, a number of which will occur in combination, include:
- strenuous exercise and overuse of particular muscle groups
- a failure to stretch or properly warm up prior to activity
- dehydration, and the related problem of sodium deficiency
- low blood sugar (glucose) levels
- magnesium deficiency
- calcium deficiency
- the presence of the hydrogen ion that is a byproduct of lactic acid formation in working muscles
- thyroid gland irregularity
- kidney dysfunction
- side effects of certain medications
Muscle cramps are more common is certain types of sporting activity, and the cramps tend to occur in distinct parts of the body in the course of those activities. In sports involving running, both as an event and as fundamental to team sports such as soccer, rugby, and American football, muscle cramps most frequently occur in the gastrocnemius (calf), the hamstrings, and the quadriceps (thigh) muscles. In cycling, the calf muscles are a frequent cramp location. As a general rule, muscle cramps will occur near the end of physical activity, when the body has been subjected to stress for a considerable period.
The onset of a muscle cramp is a disabling event. The first action to relieve the condition is the gentle stretching of the affected muscle. A stretch of the tissues that is slow and that does not itself create a further stress on the muscle will provide relief from the muscle contraction. At the point when the athlete can sense some reduction in the tightness of the cramp, the principles of the RICE (rest/ice/compression/elevation) treatment can be applied to the injured area. In some circumstances, the athlete can continue to gently stretch the muscle with the ice applied. As many cramps are related to the dehydration of the body, the athlete should consume fluids immediately.
Muscle cramps are a warning bell to the athlete. As the muscle cramp is often a symptom of a more serious physical issue that requires attention, the resumption of the athletic activity after the onset of a cramp must be monitored carefully. The development of a muscle cramp is an excellent opportunity for an athlete or a coach to assess the training practices, hydration, and diet of the athlete to determine what aspects of the overall sport regime may have contributed to the problem.
The prevention of a recurrence of the muscle cramp will also involve a review of the fitness level of the athlete. If the work required of the athlete exceeds his or her capabilities, the body will be more quickly fatigued. It is important that when an athlete seeks to increase a training or competitive workload, such increases are incremental, and usually no more than 5% per week.
Proper hydration and sodium levels must be maintained. When an athlete becomes dehydrated, the body will generally lose both its ability to properly cool itself as well as sustain a decrease in required levels of sodium. Sodium deficiencies contribute to an inability in the muscle to receive nerve impulses, which may contribute to cramping. Athletes must ensure that they follow a hydration strategy before, during, and after all training and competitive events, as dehydration is a cumulative condition.
Magnesium, calcium, and sodium are all minerals that are best consumed by way of food sources. The diet of the athlete should be analyzed to ensure that there is adequate provision for these minerals in the foods consumed.
A thorough and effective warm up, which includes an elevation of cardiovascular and respiratory function, combined with the stretching of all of the body muscle groups, will serve to both prepare the entire body for the stresses of the activity, as well as serve as a preventative against cramps.