By Peter Jaret, M.A.
Muscle cramps are a common ailment, especially in the legs and feet. Since muscle cramps are sometimes caused by dehydration (loss of water) and low levels of potassium, they frequently strike in hot weather, when your body loses water, salt, and minerals through sweating. Drinking plenty of water and eating foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, may help to ward off cramps.
You can also get a cramp while exercising, particularly if you overexert yourself. (This is why athletes are more prone to muscle cramps early in the season, before their bodies are at peak condition.) But cramps can even occur when you're sleeping.
Older people are more susceptible to muscle cramps due to the natural muscle loss that begins in our mid-40s. We also tend to be less active as we get older, and our bodies are less sensitive to thirst and more susceptible to dehydration, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). According to the AAOS, because we lose muscle mass as we age, our muscles can't work as hard or eliminate waste as quickly as they used to, resulting in more frequent cramping.
Most muscle cramps don't last very long, though some can go on for 15 minutes or longer. If you do get muscle cramps, a few simple tips can ease the pain and loosen the cramp.
What to do
- Gently massage the cramped muscle.
- Stretch the cramped muscle. If the cramp is in your calf muscle, bring your foot up toward your shin. If the cramp is in the front of your thigh, bend your knee and pull your foot toward your buttocks. Hold the stretch until the cramp subsides.
- Drink water or a sports drink.
- For tight, rigid muscles, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends applying heat. For muscles that are tender or sore, which may be inflamed, applying ice may help.
Muscle cramps while swimming
It's a myth that eating before swimming will give you muscle cramps. Still, cramps in the water aren't uncommon. If you get a cramp, try to stretch out the affected muscle while floating in the water. If the cramp is in your calf muscle, for example, flex your foot up, toes toward your shin. Once the cramp relaxes, swim to shore. If possible, use a different stroke than the one you were using when the cramp appeared, to avoid causing another. If you become exhausted, don't panic. Relax and float on your back until you regain your strength. (You can also float on your stomach and massage the cramp if necessary.)
As a precaution, don't swim alone if you are not a good swimmer, or if you don't think you could easily make it to shore if you got a muscle cramp.
Dealing with shin splints
Shin splints -- pain in the front of the lower legs -- may occur after a downhill hike or when you begin an exercise regimen more strenuous than your previous activity. They can also happen to people who run or hike long distances regularly because long periods of heavy exertion causes inflammation in the membrane that attaches muscles to your tibia, causing excruciating pain with each step.
For shin splints, apply an ice pack for 15 minutes. If the shin is still painful, consider taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. If the shin splint occurred after a bout of strenuous exercise, give the muscles a chance to rest by taking a little time off from intense exercise, then gradually return to your former level of activity.
How to avoid exercise-related leg cramps and pain
- Warm up and stretch before any activity, and cool down with slow exercise and some stretches afterward.
- Drink plenty of water before and after exercise, especially when it's hot and humid. Remember to drink water before you feel thirsty and drink more than you need to quench your thirst.
- Get plenty of potassium in your diet. Good sources include bananas, orange juice, and potatoes.
- If you tend to get cramps at night, take a warm bath before going to bed. The heat helps loosen tight muscles.
- Improve your overall fitness and flexibility. This can help prevent future cramping.
When to seek medical care
Sometimes leg pain can be a sign of medical conditions that require a doctor's attention. Such conditions include arthritis, sciatica (inflammation of the nerve that runs down the back of the leg), phlebitis (inflammation of veins in the legs), or peripheral artery disease (PAD), a condition that results in poor circulation in the legs.
Severe leg pain, swelling, and tenderness after an injury can also be a sign of bone fracture. Aching or itching in the legs maybe a symptom of varicose veins, those prominent blue or purple veins on the legs or ankles. If you have the following symptoms, call your doctor:
- Persistent pain in your leg
- Visible redness, a feeling of heat, or pain along the course of a vein in your leg
- Swelling in one leg
- Numbness, cold, or unusual color in one leg
- Repeated cramps or leg pain even after mild exercise such as walking
If you experience repeated cramps or chronic leg pain, you should talk with your doctor, whether your leg pain happens while resting, exercising, or in bed.
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