A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. If you've ever been awakened in the night or stopped in your tracks by a sudden charley horse, you know that muscle cramps can cause severe pain. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.
Long periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly in hot weather, can lead to muscle cramps. Some medications and certain medical conditions also may cause muscle cramps. You usually can treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures.
Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.
When to see a doctor
Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care. However, see your doctor if your cramps:
Cause severe discomfort
Are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes
Are associated with muscle weakness
Don't improve with self-care
Aren't associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn't known.
Although most muscle cramps are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
Inadequate blood supply. Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you're exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising.
Nerve compression. Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
Mineral depletion. Too little potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Diuretics also can deplete these minerals.
Factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
Age. Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.
Dehydration. Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
Pregnancy. Muscle cramps also are common during pregnancy.
Medical conditions. You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver, or thyroid disorders.
These steps may help prevent cramps:
Avoid dehydration. Drink plenty of liquids every day. The amount depends on what you eat, your sex, your level of activity, the weather, your health, your age, and the medications you take. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. During the activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and continue drinking water or other fluids after you're finished.
Stretch your muscles. Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you're sleeping.
Best Foods for Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps are very common, but certain foods can help keep them at bay. We take a deep dive into what causes muscle cramps and the best foods to prevent them from throwing you off your game.
High-Potassium Fruits and Vegetables
Because many muscle cramps are related to electrolyte imbalance, foods that are high in electrolytes, like potassium, can be helpful in stopping them before the start. Though bananas are the most popular high-potassium food, other foods, including avocados, potatoes, and leafy greens, also pack a potassium punch. Check out these 8 Foods with More Potassium Than a Banana for more. Sodium is another electrolyte we lose through sweat, so you may want to make sure you're replenishing your stores. Sports drinks, salted nuts or pretzels, as well as cooking with a little extra salt, can help.
Though this may seem obvious, water can help prevent cramps, as many are caused by dehydration. Drink throughout your workout. Also, carrying a reusable water bottle throughout the day can help you stave off cramps, along with many other health benefits, from better heart health to more supple skin. There are also several hydrating foods that can help you meet your water goals.
Magnesium has been shown to alleviate cramping for specific populations. A study published in Maternal & Child Nutrition found that consuming a magnesium supplement could be beneficial for pregnant women who get regular cramps. Participants who took a 300-mg magnesium supplement for four weeks had a significantly greater reduction in cramp frequency and intensity compared to the control group, who received a placebo pill. Check out these 6 Foods High in Magnesium to help prevent cramping at rest.
Myth-Busting: Pickle Juice & Mustard
A 2010 study about pickle juice reducing muscle cramps got a lot of attention. In recent years, it has been common for athletes to take shots of pickle juice to help relieve their muscle cramps (pickle juice is high in sodium). In fact, nearly 25% of athletic trainers administer pickle juice to cramping athletes. However, some physicians are concerned that taking in so many electrolytes when you are dehydrated can be dangerous for your heart, as it influences the volume of fluid in your blood vessels.
A more recent, albeit very small, study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that drinking small amounts of pickle juice did not adversely affect plasma volumes (which could impact your heart), but also didn't do anything positive for preventing muscle cramps. Larger amounts of pickle juice did increase electrolytes, but probably too slow to fend off exercise-induced cramps. A 2014 study found that pickle juice and mustard did not influence cramping in a positive or negative way. Though they probably won't be the reason your cramp stops, these foods are high in sodium and potassium and they're also easy to find, cheap, and low risk for those who are curious.
Muscle cramps can come on anytime whether you're exercising or sleeping and can be caused by several things, primarily fatigue and electrolyte imbalances. There are several other ways to be proactive about cramps, such as stretching or taking a break to refuel when you feel tired. This can be especially important on hot days or during long workouts. However, drinking plenty of water, as well as eating foods high in potassium and magnesium, can be helpful in stopping a cramp before it starts.