What Helps Cramps? Tips for Reducing Muscle Cramps

Most of us suffer from muscle cramps once in a while, but understanding what helps cramps can dramatically reduce a person’s discomfort. Before learning about what reduces cramps, let’s take a closer look at what, exactly, a cramp is. A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of muscle or a group of muscles that can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

The exact cause of muscle cramps isn’t always known, but there are several factors that can increase your likelihood of developing them. Overuse of the muscles, such as during exercise, working, or standing for a long period, can trigger muscle spasms and cramping. Painful, involuntary spasm of a muscle can also develop as a result of hormone fluctuations and low levels of minerals, as is common in women who are menstruating or pregnant. You may also be at higher risk of experiencing cramps if you have low levels of certain minerals in the blood, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium. These minerals, also known as electrolytes, are vital in order for the body’s muscular tissues to function smoothly and properly. Being dehydrated is another major precursor to muscle cramps. Taking certain types of medication, such as birth control pills, steroids, and diuretic pills may also trigger cramps.

If you suffer from frequent or recurring cramps, you may have a particular interest in learning about a few techniques that can be used to ease the pain of a cramp while it is in session. There are also several solutions that can prevent flare-ups in the future. Each section below describes an easy method that can be used to treat and prevent cramps.

1.       Stretching

Stretching is an important part of muscle health. We all know that stretching prior to exercising is important, but many adults continue to leap into an exercise routine without giving their muscles a proper warm-up. Stretching before and after exercise helps to improve blood flow to muscle tissues, which will provide these fibers with all the nutrients and oxygen they need to function smoothly. Stretching isn’t only a great way to prevent muscle cramps; it’s also a good way to relieve a cramp in action. Different types of stretches can be done to eliminate muscle cramps, although the most effective type of stretch will depend on the location of the cramp. Bear in mind that stretching a cramped muscle encourages the muscle to move out of the contraction. A cramp in one of the calf muscles, for example, would require the calf to be stretched length-wise. A great way to do this is to keep the bottom of the foot flat while attempting to stretch the toes upwards, towards the knee. Cramping in the abdomen often requires a full-body stretch where the arms and legs are stretched as far as possible in opposite directions.

2.       Massage

Massage is another great technique to use when a muscle begins to cramp. Before starting the massage, make sure that the affected muscle is as relaxed as possible. Use a muscle rub product like Icy Hot or Bengay to add lubrication to the skin. The cooling sensation will also help to relax the muscles and lower inflammation in the deeper tissues of the muscle fiber. Begin by applying even pressure to the muscles to see how it responds. If the pain is manageable, then move into a kneading action while smoothing and guiding the muscles in opposite directions. This will encourage the muscle to stretch and give way. Massage may not completely eliminate the cramp, but it should shorten the duration and dramatically reduce one’s discomfort.

3.       Change Positions

The body is very adaptable, but there are some situations that can force uncomfortable “seizing” within muscle groups, particularly if you’ve remained in the same position for an extended period. Ideally, muscles should always be moving except when they are at rest. Remaining in the same position for an extended period, even a seemingly comfortable one, can cut off circulation to parts of the body. Not only can this cause a tingling or numbing sensation in some of the limbs of the body, but it can also cause cramps by reducing the amount of oxygen and minerals being deposited into the muscles. Whenever you have to sit or stand for extended periods of time, try taking a break, or switching position for a bit. The general rule is to take a 10 minute walk for every hour that you’re seated. If standing, take a 10 minute rest in a chair, or lay down on a bench once every hour. This will dramatically reduce the occurrence of blood flow issues, pinched nerves, and muscle cramps.

4.       Apply Heat

Heat is a common solution for many muscle-related ailments. Heat tends to encourage muscle relaxation and also stimulates blood flow to the localized area. On-the-go hand warmers from convenience stores make an excellent makeshift heating pad, especially if a cramp occurs while you’re away from home. If the cramp occurs at home then you can use a hot water bottle wrapped in a thin towel. An electric heating pad is also an excellent option. The muscle should be relaxed when heat is applied to it. After 10 minutes of heat treatment, try stretching the muscle to encourage circulation, and prevent the muscle from falling back into a clenched position.

5.       Ice the Muscle

If heat doesn’t do the trick, you can try icing the affected area. Ice can numb the strained muscle and dramatically reduce your pain and discomfort. Athletic ice packs work very well but you can also make an ice pack using a few common household ingredients. A zip-top bag, some ice cubes, a bit of cold water, and a thin towel are all you need. Place a handful of ice into the bag and add a bit of water before sealing the top. This makes the bag more flexible so that it can “hug” the affected area. Wrap the makeshift ice pack in a towel and apply it directly to the cramping muscle. Do not apply the ice for more than 20 minutes at a time, as long term exposure to ice could cause irreparable cellular damage.

6.       Drink Plenty of Water

Dehydration is a major contributing factor to muscle cramps. Over 60 percent of the human body is made up of water and this life-sustaining molecule can be found in every single cell in the body. When your water reserves become depleted, parts of the body will be unable to function optimally. Organs will not work as efficiently, your mouth will become dry, skin will become tight, and frequently used muscle fibers may seize up in a contracted state. It is definitely a good idea to drink plenty of water, not just when the cramps kick in. The average adult should have anywhere from 9 to 13 glasses of water each day. Drinking plenty of water will help cramps go away and, most likely, stay away in the future.

7.       Drink an Electrolyte Replacement Beverage

Electrolyte replacement beverages can also help treat cramps and they are available virtually anywhere. Popular brands aimed towards adults include Gatorade and PowerAde. These drinks are often targeted toward athletes but they are also great if you’ve been doing manual labor, exercising, or spending a lot of time in the sun. Any time we sweat, we not only lose water, but also vital electrolytes, or minerals, that help the muscles and organs of the body work properly. Electrolytes can also become depleted as a result of diarrhea or vomiting. Electrolyte levels can easily be topped up using drink supplements like the ones listed above. You can also find stronger electrolyte supplements in a local pharmacy for more severe cases of electrolyte deficiency and dehydration.

8.       Balanced Diet and/or Vitamin Supplements

The foods we eat play a direct role in the body’s overall functionality. If your diet is lacking essential vitamins and minerals, particularly leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, and lean meat, there will be repercussions with regard to the muscular system, digestive system, and circulatory system. These systems depend on vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins B and C, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, to run smoothly. A diet that lacks these vitamins will eventually result in poor health. Be sure to eat a well-balanced diet.  This means that every major food group should be represented in your meals and snacks. You may find it difficult to obtain the amount of nutrients you require through the foods you consume, and in this case, it may be best to begin taking a vitamin supplement to provide the extra nutrients you may be lacking.

9.       Anti-Inflammatory Medicine

Anti-inflammatory medicine, such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen, and Naproxen Sodium, can be good items to fall back on when a cramp becomes especially painful, such as those associated with menstruation. Anti-inflammatory medicine reduces swelling, which may be a factor in the muscle contractions. This medication will also lessen the pain to make you more comfortable. Anti-inflammatory medicine may also be used to get rid of any lingering soreness caused by a long-lasting muscle cramp.

10.   Rest the Affected Muscles

The most common areas to be affected by cramps are the legs and feet. These muscles are constantly tasked with the job of carrying the weight of the body. It’s important to properly rest these muscles, as well as any other muscles that seem to be prone to cramping. This is also true in situations where you have been exercising more than usual, or standing or walking for long periods. Pregnant women should try to prop their legs up for about half an hour each day to rest the legs and feet and to encourage good circulation. The task of carrying such an excess of weight put on in a short time can be very tiring for your legs and feet, therefore frequent rest is imperative for good muscle health.