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How to Treat and Prevent Muscle Cramps

"For most people, muscle cramps come and go without lasting problems. For others, however, cramps can be extremely painful, and can be reoccurring."

You’re sound asleep, enjoying an amazing dream... when all of a sudden a massive leg cramp jolts you out of bed. Talk about pain! Nearly 40% of us experience leg cramps on a regular basis, (also known as Charley Horses).

In today’s live with Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, holistic nutritionist, you’ll learn the best way relieve a cramp and how you can prevent from them from happening in the future.

Video Highlights

  • 00:44: Nearly 40% of people experience leg cramps
  • 02:29: What could be causing muscle cramps
  • 04:47: What happens to the muscle that results in a cramp
  • 05:26: Muscle cramps are more frequent for some than for others
  • 06:41: Inflammation plays a major role in muscle cramps
  • 09:20: Other contributors to be aware of
  • 11:50: Common medications with cramping as a possible side effect
  • 13:28: What you can do to treat a cramp
  • 16:10: Natural ways to prevent cramps from occurring in the first place
  • 17:56: Simple stretches anyone can do
  • 21:10: Summary

Severe Muscle Cramps Are a Common Issue

Almost everyone gets muscle cramps without warning at one time or another. The muscles suddenly become really tight, causing sharp pain. These cramps can be excruciating, and often occur during sleep, which is a shocking and unpleasant way to wake up! The good news is, frequent muscle cramping is both treatable and preventable.

What Causes Leg Cramps?

This will come as no surprise, but inflammation plays a key role in cramping! This is yet another reasons to do everything you can to decrease the inflammatory load on your body! 

A cramp can occur in any muscle, but they are most common in the back of the leg, or the calf. Doctors do not know exactly why muscle cramps happen, but some contributors are:

  • Muscle injury and overuse: If you've over-exerted yourself on a recent hike, walk, or run, or failed to stretch properly before exercising, this can cause cramps
  • Dehydration, as well as low blood levels of key minerals. If you sweat while working out for example, and don't replenish the electrolytes and minerals lost through sweating, this can occur. 
  • Sleeping position. Cramping of the leg can occur any time, but it's more likely to occur while you sleep. The exact cause of of nighttime cramping is unknown, but doctors believe lying in bed in an awkward position for a long time could be one of the triggers.

Cramps occur as a result of the brain sending continuous signals to the muscles to contract without releasing. The nerves suddenly start firing at a high rate, forcing the muscle into a tight squeeze, causing a cramp to occur. Sudden, uncontrollable cramps, or charley horses, are usually brief: about 30 seconds. However it is not uncommon for cramping to last for several minutes; sometimes it can be up to 10 minutes!

For most people, muscle cramps come and go without lasting problems. For others, however, cramps can be extremely painful, can be reoccurring, and can even be so bad that they leave the muscles sore and aching for days.

The Role of Inflammation in Muscle Cramps

This can also be more common as we get older. As we mentioned previously, muscle cramping can be a direct result of inflammation occurring throughout the body, and especially within the nerves and the muscles. Inflammation is the most common contributor to preventable discomfort and is often a frequent contributor to cramping. Any time significant levels of inflammation exist in the body, there is an increased presence of muscle aches and pains, including cramping. Your muscles and joints are particularly sensitive to inflammation.

These symptoms are a clear sign that your body is struggling to protect itself from the damaging effects of inflammation. So be sure to do everything that you can to promote normal inflammatory responses each day. Take steps each day, including:

New research shows that there can be a combination of a lot of things that contribute to frequent cramping, in addition to inflammation, that you should be aware of:

  • Inadequate blood flow to your muscles. This is often a result of obesity or diabetes. 
  • Muscle injuries
  • Stress. Stress is incredibly inflammatory. That's why it's so important to find daily ways to decrease your stress. 
  • Not stretching before or after exercise. Stretching is really important. It circulates the blood, calms the central nervous system, and distributes oxygenated blood to the areas that have been working, for better muscle repair.
  • Nerve compression on the spine.
  • Mineral depletion, or consuming too little potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Foods on the anti-inflammatory diet guide that can replenish these minerals quickly include: water, bananas, papayas, celery, watermelon, sweet potatoes, beans, salmon, avocados, coconut water, and dark leafy greens. 
  • Dehydration. It bears repeating! Not consuming enough water throughout the day can be a major culprit. 
  • Medication side effects. Read the side effect warnings on the medications you take, as these can contribute to muscle cramping. This is common for medications that treat: iron deficiency (anemia), osteoporosis, menopause, pain, nerve pain (neuropathy), cholesterol, as well as diuretics. If you are taking any medication for any of these conditions and have noticed an increase in the frequency or severity of cramping, let your healthcare provider know right away. You may need a dosage adjustment.

What Can I Do to Treat Muscle Cramps?

When you're awakened by a severe cramp, your first natural instinct may be to jump up and stretch, or try to walk it off. Here's what you can do instead:

  1. Relax. Take a few calming breaths
  2. Straighten out your leg, flex your toes toward the ceiling, and then use your hands to pull your toes back toward your shin, and lean forward as much as you can. This will be tough, since your leg is wanting to curl up into a ball, and you are making it do the opposite. 
  3. You can also massage your calves or hamstrings with your hands
  4. Repeat these steps a few times until the cramps are gone. Make sure that you're breathing
  5. Get up and drink plenty of water: two full bottles if you can

Some people also find that using a heating pad or soaking the muscle in a hot bath can speed up the relaxation process. If you can learn to stay calm, and gently stretch before the cramping increases, relief is faster.

Natural Methods to Prevent Cramps from Occurring 

Stay hydrated. Hydration is key! Make sure you drink enough water, coconut water, or whatever you need to replenish essential minerals each day.

Limit the amount of caffeine you consume. Don't drink more than a couple cups of coffee or tea a day, as these can drain your body of essential minerals. Caffeine and other stimulants have been connected to increased risk of cramps. 

Supplement. Smarter Curcumin promotes normal inflammation responses in the body. Try also adding a daily magnesium supplement.

Stretch! No matter what exercise you're doing, or even if you don't exercise at all, you need to stretch. Following are a few simple stretches anyone at any fitness level can do. This will keep your muscles more flexible and encourage better blood flow to your muscles. Do these stretches right before bed if you are prone to muscle cramping.

1. Sitting on the edge of your bed, or on the ground, simply pump your feet back and forth 20 times. Rest your heels on the ground and flex your feet one at a time. 

Wrap a towel under the ball of your feet, holding the ends with your hands. Straighten your leg, and pull the tops of your fee toward your torso. Do this one leg at a time. Hold for ten breaths, and repeat until you have a good stretch.

3. Sitting down, elongate your legs so they are straight in front of you, then lean forward, reaching for your toes, for a seated forward fold. You can bend your knees, so your legs don't have to be completely straight. Stay there and relax for ten breaths. 

4. For a deeper stretch, or to enlist the help of gravity, simply stand and fold the top half of your body forward for a standing forward fold. Again, you can bend your knees during this stretch. Hold for a few breaths.

    This should prepare you to sleep without interruptions from night time cramps! The bottom line is that muscle cramps are very common, so if you experience them, you're not alone. They are usually treatable, and even preventable by ensuring a daily routine of gentle stretching, proper hydration, steps to reduce inflammation, and a diet that includes the proper amount of minerals, especially calcium, potassium, and magnesium. 

    Remember, although cramps are extremely painful, they are temporary and manageable. The key is to stay calm, and follow these recommended steps.

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