How do muscle cramps develop?

If you’ve ever had a cramp in your calf, you know how painful muscle cramps can be. What causes cramps? And how can you prevent them?

28.07.2022 Daniela Schori 3 minutes

Muscle cramps when you exercise or overnight, when you’re sleeping, can be extremely painful. The muscles contract involuntarily, stiffen and you experience a pulling sensation.

If you get cramp in your calf while jogging, you can barely put your foot on the ground due to the pain. After a matter of seconds or minutes, the muscle relaxes again.

First aid in case of a muscle cramp

If you feel a cramp coming on, stretching helps.

  • In the case of cramp in your calf, pull your toes upwards towards your shin.
  • Gently massage the muscle lengthways.
  • As soon as the tension eases, carefully start moving again.
  • Alternating between hot and cold water in the shower can also help.

But the best remedy for muscle cramps is prevention.

Preventing muscle cramps

Diet

Make sure you have a balanced diet. This ensures your body has all the nutrients it requires. The food pyramid provides you with good guidance here.

Magnesium

A magnesium deficiency can be established with a blood test. This condition can be treated with preparations in powder or tablet form.

Stay hydrated

When doing sport or during other physical exertion, in particular, make sure to drink enough water or isotonic drinks. Don’t consume alcohol. This draws liquid from the body.

Warm up

Warm up your muscles before sport. Start your training at a low level of intensity or complete warm-up exercises. Skipping or jumping jacks, for example, are suitable here.

Stretching

Stretching after exercise helps your muscles to relax. Warming up before you exercise is even more important. Make stretching part of your daily life. This prevents tension and imbalances, keeps your joints and tissue structures supple and your muscles interact better with one another.

Tip: if you often suffer from calf cramps during the night, complete your stretching exercises in the evening.

Stretching exercises in the Helsana Coach app

Stretching keeps your muscles supple and resilient. The “Get your legs moving” program in the free Helsana Coach app improves your mobility. Download now and get started.

What causes muscle cramps?

Cramping occurs when nerves send unclear impulses from the brain to the muscles. The muscles interpret these incorrectly and cramp up. Cramp affects our skeletal muscles, in particular. However, smooth muscles such as blood vessels, hollow organs and lymph vessels can also cramp up. The only exception is the heart: it is the only muscle that cannot cramp up.

The three cramp forms

  • In the case of usual cramp, we experience a short, painful contraction in our muscle. Examples here include calf cramps at night or in the morning.
  • Quick, rhythmic twitching is referred to as clonic cramp. Such cramps occur successively at short intervals. In between, the muscle relaxes.
  • Tonic cramps are long-lasting contractions (continuous cramp).

Causes of muscle cramps in the skeletal muscles

If the concentration of minerals (electrolytes) in our body is imbalanced, for example in the case of a magnesium or sodium chloride deficiency, muscle cramps can occur. This happens when the body does not have enough fluid. This can be due to sweating or other reasons, such as drinking alcohol.

A shortage of minerals can also develop if our diet isn't right. Muscles can also cramp up, however, if they receive an insufficient blood supply or are too greatly exerted. This can often be seen during a football match. Towards the end of a game, footballers often suffer cramp in their calves.

Other reasons for muscle cramps

  • Striated muscles: varicose veins, certain medication, neurological or hormonal illnesses
  • Smooth muscles: asthma, appendicitis, kidney stones, Crohn’s disease
  • Generalised cramping seizure: fever, epilepsy, meningitis, drug or alcohol withdrawal

The causes are often harmless. However, if you frequently suffer from muscle cramps that last for an extended period and are very painful, this could point to a metabolic disorder or a neurological illness. Consult your doctor in order to rule out serious illnesses.

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