What is a muscle cramp?
It can happen after intense exercise or in the dead of night when you’re doing nothing at all but sleeping. A muscle — say your calf — seizes up without warning, leaving you wincing in pain. You’re having a muscle cramp. It’s an uncontrolled contraction of a muscle or part of a muscle, which makes it tighten and causes pain, explains Madhuri Kale, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Sometimes also called Charley horses, muscle cramps usually occur in the larger skeletal muscles, such as those in the legs, and are categorized as either non-exercise or exercise-related. The good news is it’s typically temporary and can be soothed with self-care at home.
What causes muscle cramps?
Various factors can contribute to muscle cramps, including launching into an intense exercise regimen without warming up or stretching and then overusing a muscle. Exercise-related muscle cramps are more common than cramps that aren’t related to exercise, says Mark A.W. Andrews, director of physiology at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine located on the campus of Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Remedy: Stretch the muscle.
Fortunately, for most who experience occasional muscle cramps, the momentary pain can be soothed at home. Just don’t try to push through the cramp. “Stop using that muscle. Let it relax and stretch it out,” Kale says.
Remedy: Massage the muscle.
Another thing you can do immediately if you have a cramp is to massage the muscle gently. “Massage is going to bring increased blood flow into an area,” Andrews explains. And that’s just what’s needed to help ease your tightened muscle.
Remedy: Apply heat.
Along with massage, applying heat to a cramped muscle is another way to bring more nutrient-rich blood to the area, says Dr. David Kiefer, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
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