Muscle cramp
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Whenever we move parts of our bodies such as our arms and legs, the muscles contract and relax in turns. Whenever these muscles make an involuntary movement, this uncontrolled motion is known as a spasm. A particularly strong spasm is called a cramp, and it causes the muscle to visibly stiffen up and harden.

Muscle cramps occur when one or more of our muscles undergo involuntary spasms. Also known as a Charley horse, these contractions are more commonly experienced in the night, or right after exercise. Muscle cramps last for anywhere from several seconds and up to fifteen minutes at a time. They may involve a fiber of a muscle, a small part of a muscle, the whole muscle itself, or sometimes several muscles all at once.


Muscle cramps may occur in any of our muscles that we control voluntarily, such as our skeletal muscles. They frequently occur in the muscles of the feet and calves. Involuntary muscles are likewise subject to muscle cramps, such as muscles of the intestinal tract, uterus, bronchial tree, and blood vessel walls.

It is not rare for cramps to occur several times in succession before finally subsiding. They are very common and a majority (approximately 95%) of people have experienced them at one time or another. While they increase in occurrence as a person ages, children are not immune to experiencing them, either.

Muscle cramps are characterized by severe pain and a hard and bulging feel to the cramping muscle. Most often the affected muscles visibly stiffen, and will cause you temporary debilitation due to the pain. While the muscles are in the process of cramping, you will be unable to use them at all until the cramping ceases.

Some cramps that persist for an extended period of time often cause swelling, tenderness and soreness of the affected muscle.

Cramps that occur in our skeletal muscles are classified into four types according to the muscles they affect and what causes them: “true” cramps, tetany, dystonic cramps, and contractures.

“True” cramps involve muscles or groups of muscles that work together, such as the muscles of the arm used to flex a bicep. “True” cramps can be caused by injury, as when a bone is broken resulting in the spasm of the surrounding muscle. It can also be caused by vigorous exercise, sports, repetitive use of the muscle, lying in an awkward position, or remaining in one position for a long period of time, all of which result in muscle fatigue.
Muscle Cramp
Image: Muscle Cramp

“True” that cramps often occur at night, known as rest cramps or nocturnal cramps, are common among older adults. “True” cramps are also caused by dehydration; uncommon distribution of body fluids, such as occurs with cirrhosis of the liver; a calcium or magnesium deficiency, and low blood levels of potassium.


Muscle cramps caused by tetany result from the activation of the body's nerve cells, which in turn stimulate the muscles into cramping. Tetanic cramps are very similar to “true” cramps in the pain experienced by the sufferer.

Dystonic cramps occur when the muscles that move in one direction suddenly cramp in the opposite direction. These types of cramps often affect the smaller muscle groups, such as the jaws, larynx, neck, fingers and eyelids. They are associated with repetitive movements such as writing, playing a musical instrument, or typing.

Contractures are cramps that result when the muscles cannot relax. The muscles are subject to constant spasms due to the depletion of an energy chemical found in cells known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Contratures can be an inherited condition, as with the case of a breakdown of sugar within muscle cells in McArdle's Disease, or acquired due to an overactive thyroid function as in Hyperthyroid Myopathy.


There is no specific diagnostic procedure for cramps, as most people know when one is happening to them. The muscle tenses and bulges suddenly, and the pain is often severe, although temporary. If your cramps occur with alarming frequency and are often severe despite stretching to free the cramped muscle, you should see your doctor to check for a more serious related medical condition.

Your doctor will take down your medical history and ask you a series of questions related to your muscle cramps, such as when the spasms initially occurred, how long they last, and what factors cause your muscles to spasm. The doctor will also determine if the spasms occur at the same location each time, and if your muscle cramps are accompanied by symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, excessive urination or excessive sweating. The doctor will likewise ask about your history of alcohol consumption and exercise habits. If you are female, the doctor will examine you for any signs of pregnancy.

Based on the doctor's findings, you may be subjected to blood tests to determine any existence of calcium, magnesium or potassium deficiencies, as well as to check your thyroid and kidney functions. Other tests to rule out certain conditions include a pregnancy test, electromyography, and myelography.


Ordinarily, a muscle cramp can be stopped in its path by a simple stretching of the muscle and gentle massage to relieve the pain. Standing or walking around may remedy cramps occurring in the legs and feet. For muscle cramps that occur in the calves, a simple first aid procedure of laying the leg down flat and flexing the feet to stretch the calf muscle will work immediately. A hand contracture can likewise be remedied by pressing the affected hand flat on the wall with the fingers stretching downwards.

Massage is also an effective way of relieving the pain caused by muscle cramps, as is applying a heating pad or soaking in a warm bath. If the cramping is a result of dehydration or fluid loss due to excessive exercise, you will need to replace your fluid and electrolytes immediately through an intake of water or energy drink.

There is no medication needed to treat ordinary muscle cramps. However, if the cramping is secondary to a more serious medical condition, such as unusual fluid distribution due to cirrhosis of the liver, an overactive thyroid gland, or a hormonal deficiency, your doctor will need to treat the underlying condition in order to get rid of the cramping symptoms.
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