AKA Spasm or Charley Horse
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s probably the most thorough one that you can find. If you do find one better, do tell!
Use this as a check-list to see if any line up with your situation.
Intervention when a cramp occurs
The most effective methods to reduce the cramp, that I’ve found:
1. Hold static compression on the affected muscle
Significant pressure is not advised.
2. Engage reciprocal inhibition while simultaneously gently stretching the cramped muscle. Reciprocal Inhibition describes the automatic relaxation of the antagonist muscle. The bicep is the antagonist of the tricep. The Quadricep is the antagonist of the Hamstring. Whichever muscle activates the opposite movement from the affected muscle, should stimulate a relaxation response.
3. A combination of both methods, may be too intense, so I wouldn’t start with it, but it is worth considering.
What Causes It?
Insufficient Water - Especially before exercise.
However, during activity is important as well: replenish fluids at regular intervals. Make sure that your water has electrolytes, especially sodium, as you lose a significant amount through sweat.
Insufficient minerals (electrolytes) – Such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and phosphate
Diuretics, kidney failure, pancreatitis, antibiotics, other various medicines, alcoholism, hypoparathyroidism, endocrine (hormonal) dysfunction, excess vomiting and diarrhea, and Vitamin D deficiency can cause this, for starters.
I personally use Vega electrolyte powder. It tastes amazing! Helps me drink more water too.
Epsom Salt baths are a great way to supplement salt back into the body also.
If you have the money to spare, getting some bloodwork to establish your baseline would be enlightening. That way you’ll know for sure if your selected strategy will provide sufficient minerals. I personally just supplement regularly. Seems to work for me. But if you're having issues, bloodwork is an option.
Insufficient or no warm up for exercise – Lions may not need to warm up before they tackle a gazelle, but we’re also not lions. We are built more for distance running. Humans run down gazelles until they are tired, and then we kill them. Our ancestors from about 7 million years ago were similar to chimpanzees. Modern day chimps still behave and look very similar because they weren’t forced out of their habitat from deforestation. Our “less fortunate” ancestors had to make it on the plains of Africa without sharp teeth and claws. This meant that instead of agility with 4 legs, we favored the ability to throw objects and out-stamina prey. None of this is full-proof evidence that you NEED to warm-up. If you want to live the eye of the tiger lifestyle as closely as possible, more power to you. But if your muscles start to cramp your style, you can refer back to this section, and consider warming up.
Insufficient stretching – Not just before workouts, but even more importantly afterwards. Like brushing your teeth after eating, we need to stretch our muscles after activity. It keeps us limber, decreases our chance of injury from stiff muscles, and prevents cramps. Hypothetically, the reason why charley horses are so common in the calves and feet is because we spend so much time sitting on chairs and on the toilet instead of squatting like our hunter gatherer ancestors would have.
I usually stretch about 20 minutes a day: While waiting in line, while watching TV, just before bed while looking at Instagram… point being, I rarely stretch without multi-tasking. I’m more likely to do it that way, and it’s so easy to do, that I can’t justify focusing solely on stretching, unless, ofcourse, if you want to multitask meditation with it ;) Don’t be afraid to hold a stretch for 5 minutes or longer. Just start with 30 seconds, and work your way up. Experiment. I typically hold them for 30 seconds to a minute, and it’s not uncommon for me to spend 1 to 2 hours massaging myself and stretching while watching Star Trek Voyager or Stargate SG-1.
Insufficient Sleep – The body needs time to heal. In this hyper yang energy culture, replete with industry and productivity over balance and quality of life, the tide pulls is toward overdoing it, and losing out on sleep. The antidote for this is simply remembering what’s truly important in life, and having the discipline to stick to it.
Ofcourse, if your cramps keep you from sleeping, this can become a vicious cycle really quick. Luckily, there are so many other factors listed here, that contribute to cramps, that if you handle some of the others, like stretching, supplementing minerals, and taking an Epsom Salt soak before bed, you just might make it through the night.
Muscle pain, fatigue, and overuse – Taking more frequent breaks can help this. If your work day is 8 hours long, get up and do 10 jumping jacks every 30 minutes, or something similar.
Balancing out the work load can help too. When I brush my teeth, I brush the right side with the right hand, and it took me a few months to get the dexterity, but I brush my left side with the left hand. When sweeping the floor, sweep one way for a while, and then switch. Anywhere you can find a rest for one side while the other takes over, will do wonders toward less pain, stiffness, and cramps.
Nerve disorders –
Less common, but worth considering, especially if it is the motor nerve, as opposed to the sensory nerve.
Things like Multiple Sclerosis, Peripheral Neuropathy, and a host of others could be the culprit. Focusing on the other mentioned causes could help to lessen the effect, so don’t write those off if you know you have a nerve disorder.
Nerve impingement and damage are factors too. That feeling when you hit your “funny bone”. If that happens anywhere, it could cause cramps. Impingement is a bit more insidious, as it tends to creep up on you slowly. The main areas to be aware of are the gluteals (where the sciatic nerve originates) and the thoracic outlet (which contains 3 different impingement points – your neck muscle (scalene), in between the collar bone and the first rib, and underneath pectoralis minor). Keeping these areas massaged and stretched will help to prevent impingement.
Insufficient blood supply – due to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Focusing heavily on upping your nutrition game will prevent this. Look into the work of Dr. Dean Ornish. It was once thought that once you had heart-disease, it would only get worse. But Dr. Ornish has taken conventional cardiovascular patients, provided them with important lifestyle insights and without drugs, the cardiovascular disease was resolved. Ornish relayed that if he’d gotten the same results with a drug, every doctor would be prescribing it.
Check out his TED Talks, See the evidence for yourself.
Thyroid-related problems -
Muscle weakness, aches, stiffness, and cramping are common in people with hypothyroidism
To corroborate if it is your thyroid, take a look at these other complications associated to hypothyroidism. If you have a few of these, it’s a worthwhile consideration - puffy face, sluggishness, weight gain, sensitivity to or feeling cold, constipation, dry skin, elevated blood cholesterol, trouble concentrating, hoarseness, depression, hair thinning, impaired memory, enlarged thyoid (goiter), slowed heart rate.
Diabetes – When your blood sugar is low, your muscles become starved for glucose, which is an essential component of muscle contraction. Make sure to maintain stable blood sugar levels to prevent cramps.
Liver disease – While the cause is unclear, muscle cramps are often reported in patients with this condition, whether it be from alcohol abuse, hepatitis C, or other causes.
Well, there you go. Let me know if you have any questions or comments. And may your days be filled with lovely muscular health.