75 percent of muscle cramps occur at night
Muscle cramps occur when skeletal muscles—those that move bones and that are normally under your control, start contracting on their own. The pain, which can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer, can be intense, but most of the time, cramps don’t indicate a serious medical problem. They often develop when muscles are stressed from overdoing exercise or when you hold your body in a position that keeps muscles tightened for a long time. While cramps can strike any skeletal muscle, some common spots are in the legs: calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Up to 95% of adults report having cramps. Here’s how to prevent and ease them.
Strong muscles are better able to withstand stress from exertion, and keeping muscles it is especially important for older people, since age-related muscle loss accelerates with inactivity. “Muscles accustomed to exercise have less chance of fatigue, which is a main factor in cramping,” says Elizabeth Matzkin, chief of women’s sports medicine at Harvard Medical School. If you’re starting a new exercise regimen, build up your strength gradually to minimize the chance of cramping.
Muscles need water to contract properly, and dehydration may increase the risk of cramps, especially in hot conditions. Nighttime cramps, the ones that wake you up and send you hopping out of bed, might be due to dehydration that occurs while you’re sleeping. Generally, women need about 9 cups of fluids a day; men require about 13 cups, although the requirements are affected by activity level, eating habits (salt intake, fluids in food), and other factors.
Minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium regulate electrical signals that trigger muscle contractions. “Deficiency or losses through sweat may lead to muscles seizing up,” says Joseph Herrera, chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Health System. Eat a variety of mineral-rich foods like dairy, fruit, leafy vegetables, and whole grains. If you exercise for more than an hour, hydrate with a sports drink that contains electrolytes.
Soothe cramping muscles by gently stretching them, which lengthens muscle fibers and encourages them to relax. If you tend to develop leg cramps in bed, keep a towel within reach that you can use to wrap around your foot and pull the foot back toward you while you’re lying down. Snug bedding can press feet down, making muscles vulnerable to spasms, so try loosening your covers. To stay limber, incorporate active stretching into your daily routine and stretch after working out.
Warmth from a hot water bottle, warm towel, bath, or shower relaxes muscles and makes them more pliable. Use heat for 5 to 10 minutes, then follow up with gentle stretches. Apply a menthol-based ointment or topical anti-inflammatory pain reliever like Bengay to soothe soreness that can follow severe cramps. Bonus: “Massaging muscles as you put on ointment may help relieve cramps directly,” Matzkin says.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen won’t release tight muscles, but they can ease soreness that lingers when muscles cramp for an extended period, says David Geier, a spokesperson for the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. The drugs take about an hour to work, which is why they aren’t useful while a cramp is occurring. Avoid drinking alcohol when taking NSAIDs; it’s dehydrating and can make cramps more difficult to alleviate.
1. Statin Management
If you use a statin to lower cholesterol, tell your doctor if you experience cramps or muscle soreness, both common side effects of these drugs. Your doctor may adjust how you take the drug or prescribe a statin that’s less likely to cause cramping. There’s evidence that taking 100 to 200 mg of coenzyme Q10 daily may prevent muscle pain from statins, since statins lower your body’s levels of this chemical important for muscle function. Check with your doctor before taking it.
2. Vitamin B Complex
B vitamins help provide energy to muscles and nerves, so they’re important for the normal function of both. Taking a B-complex supplement three times a day for 3 months relieved leg cramps in 86% of older people in one small study, while making remaining cramps shorter and less intense. B vitamins can interact with other medications, including some statins, so alert your physician if you take a supplement.
3. Prescription drugs
There are no drugs specifically approved to treat muscle cramps, but there are some—including gabapentin, an anticonvulsant, and diltiazem, a calcium channel blocker, that are prescribed off-label when other options don’t help. In preliminary research, each relieved spasms. But the drugs warrant more study: The antimalarial drug quinine was once prescribed of-label to treat muscle cramps until reports of serious side effects like bleeding prompted the FDA to warn against that use.
by Richard Laliberte, PREVENTION.COM · MARCH 2017