What Causes Muscle Cramps (And What To Do About It)?
Muscle cramps can be caused by muscle fatigue, improper hydration, or electrolyte imbalances. Find out why and what natural remedies for muscle cramps are available.
Nothing is worse than a muscle spasm. It occurs quickly and hurts like hell.
Muscle cramps often occur during exercise, but not always. It can actually happen at any time - for example, many people get leg cramps in the middle of the night.
What Causes Muscle Cramps? Is it dehydration, electrolyte depletion, muscle fatigue, drugs, or neuromuscular dysfunction?
Unfortunately, the answer is: All of these are possible causes. There is a lot of debate on this topic, but different things can cause this painful symptom depending on the situation.
For example, if a group of athletes cramps after a sweaty workout, it's likely a sodium problem. (When athletes drink salty water, cramps subside). But if a person is well hydrated and still cramps, the fault must lie elsewhere.
Today we're going to be covering muscle cramps, but it's a handy nerd session. Not only will you learn what causes muscle cramps, but also what you can do about it.
What is a muscle spasm?
A muscle spasm is a sudden, painful contraction of a muscle. These can last from a few seconds to several minutes. The after-effects, such as muscle stiffness or soreness, can last for days.
The muscle groups that cramp most often are in the legs, feet, hands and abdominal muscles. About 80% of cramps occur in the calf. However, it is not clear why exactly leg cramps are so popular.
Muscle cramps affect not only the muscles, but the whole body. They can even affect your emotional state.
It is difficult to predict when a muscle spasm will occur. Only one thing is certain - it occurs quickly, and the warning signs are vague and unreliable.
Still, researchers have identified a handful of risk factors for muscle cramps. Let's look at these risk factors before delving into the specific causes.
Risk factors for muscle cramps
Certain diets and activities are more conducive to muscle cramps than others. Even genetics can play a role in muscle spasms.
In the nutrition category, the keto diet is a risk factor for muscle cramps. Muscle cramps are part of the constellation of symptoms - headaches, cramps, brain fog, fatigue and constipation - known as the keto flu.
Why are keto users more likely to cramp? Because the ketogenic diet tends to be deficient in electrolytes, which are important for muscle function. More on that shortly.
Fatiguing exercise is another risk factor for muscle cramps. As muscles tire, they seem to become more prone to spasms.
For example, in 82 marathon runners, all cramps occurred after about 15 miles. Before that there were no problems, probably because the muscles were less tired at that point.
Another analysis of 1,300 marathon runners found that fatigue is a risk factor for cramps. The runners who trained harder than normal had a higher risk of cramping.
The risk of muscle cramps increases when the athlete trains in the heat. The hotter the workout, the more sodium is lost through sweat and the more likely the athlete is to cramp.
This has been demonstrated in various population groups. American football players, for example , got 95% of their cramps when it was hot. Most of these cramps occurred during the first week of camp, when the weather was at its hottest and the athletes were at their weakest.
Not surprisingly, sweat loss is a risk factor. In warm climates, athletes can lose up to 7 grams of sodium per day through sweat. Such a loss can lead to cramps if the sodium is not replaced.
In addition to keto, exercise, and sweat loss, there are other risk factors for muscle cramps:
- Underlying chronic diseases (cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, etc.)
- taking medication
- history of injuries
- Family history of muscle spasms
Let's go one level deeper and look at what could be causing muscle cramps.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Scientists don't know exactly what causes muscle spasms. There are two prevailing theories:
- Seizures are due to a neurological disorder
- Cramps are caused by insufficient fluid intake
However, the second theory must be broken down into two more parts: a water or liquid part and an electrolyte part. So there are three possible causes.
Let's go through them.
Theory #1: Impaired neuromuscular control
In the 1980s, researchers found that muscle cramps during exercise weren't always related to heavy sweating. They started looking for other explanations.
One theory was that muscle fatigue triggers a series of events that affect motor neurons. (Motor neurons are brain cells that control voluntary actions). This impairment shakes the central nervous system, which responds by activating (spasping) the muscle.
Some data on athletes supports the neuromuscular theory. Blocking motor neurons in athletes who are prone to spasms requires greater electrical stimulation to induce a spasm. The motor neurons are clearly involved.
However, the theory has gaps. If muscular fatigue causes this problem, why do only a small percentage of marathon runners develop cramps? They all get tired, but only a few have cramps.
Theory #2: Dehydration
Muscle cramps are a well-documented symptom of dehydration. But is dehydration (net water loss) a major cause of muscle cramps during exercise?
Most hydration websites say yes. According to a 2016 study on hydration misinformation, 98% of websites say dehydration causes muscle cramps when exercising.
However, the truth is that there is little evidence to support this theory. One study showed that even severe hypohydration (losing more than 5% of body water) does not increase the frequency of muscle cramps.
The real problem is overwatering. To prevent dehydration, many athletes drink beyond their thirst, diluting blood sodium levels. This can lead to cramps .
Theory #3: Electrolyte imbalance
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity in your nervous system and keep your bodily fluids balanced. This is important: Electrolytes are crucial for muscle contraction and relaxation.
A deficiency in the following electrolytes is the most common cause of cramps:
Sodium deficiency is probably the main reason for muscle cramps during exercise. If the sodium lost through sweat isn't replaced - and if the athlete drinks too much water - cramps are likely to occur.
The first evidence that sodium deficiency causes muscle cramps comes from sweaty, cramped construction and steel mill workers in the 1920s. When these workers received salt supplements, the frequency of convulsions decreased.
Recent research has shown that soccer players with higher levels of sodium in their sweat are more prone to cramps. Kidney patients on dialysis also have more cramps when given low-sodium fluids. When the electrolytes are normalized, the spasms go away.
Finally, low sodium explains many ketogenic muscle cramps. Keto-tolerant people not only absorb less sodium from their diet, but also excrete more sodium in their urine. That's a formula for electrolyte depletion.
Natural remedies for muscle spasms
One of the most well-known anticonvulsants is the drug quinine . But I don't recommend quinine. It has too many serious side effects.
I recommend a more natural approach that focuses on rest and hydration. Here are my tips:
Muscle fatigue is a risk factor for muscle cramps. That doesn't mean you shouldn't work out your muscles (because that's how you get stronger). It just means that you should be careful when pushing your limits. Adequate recovery times between workouts also reduce the risk of muscle injury.
Stretching, massage and heat
Some research suggests that shorter stretch times are a risk factor for muscle spasms. Another study found no connection.
I don't know what to think of that. I'm a fan of dynamic stretching (ie moving in different positions) rather than static stretching. Dynamic stretching promotes mobility and flexibility.
Heat and massage can also relieve cramps. This could be a placebo effect, but a massage can't hurt.
Increase the intake of electrolytes
Whenever you can, eat foods rich in electrolytes to help prevent deficiencies and cramps.
When you're on a keto diet, you have to make an extra effort to get enough sodium, potassium, and magnesium without eating carbs. That means lots of spinach, kale, and salt. Steamed kale with salt is delicious. More vegan ketogenic recipes, here .
Hydrated with electrolyte blends
To prevent cramps, add electrolytes to your water when you rehydrate. Look at the evidence:
- Salt supplements reduce cramps in workers in the early 20th century.
- Men who drank an oral rehydration solution (containing electrolytes and liquid) after a hot workout had fewer cramps than men who drank only water.
- Soccer players who drank electrolyte-enriched sports drinks had fewer cramps than those who drank only water.
- Drinking cucumber juice (high in sodium) prevents muscle cramps in dehydrated people.
But you don't necessarily have to drink cucumber juice, because not everyone likes it. Just add salt to your water or mix in a stick of le melo. Just sip it to quench your thirst throughout the day. Your chances of getting cramps just dropped drastically.