A cramp is an involuntary contraction of the muscle which can not only be very painful but may also cause muscle damage in severe cases. Here we explain the possible causes, treatment, and prevention of cramps in the calf muscles.
Cramps is a painful, involuntary contraction of the muscle:
- Your muscles go into spasm and tighten up automatically.
- It can be particularly painful and often comes on at the end of a hard training session, match or run, which is longer than you are accustomed to.
- Cramp affects most people who train hard, particularly runners at some point in their careers. Footballers often suffer if a match goes into extra time.
- A common site for leg cramps is the calf muscles. These consist of the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle at the back of the lower leg.
What causes cramps?
Although the exact cause of leg cramps has not yet been successfully determined there are thought to be a number of possible causes including:
Dehydration is caused by not taking on enough water, especially in hot conditions. Low water means low blood volume which in turn affects the muscles.
- More on Dehydration
Low potassium or sodium (salt) levels. When we sweat we lose salts which need to be replaced.
Most people will usually take on enough salt in their diet for this not to be a factor, however, if you are exercising in the heat for a couple of hours or more then an energy drink with electrolytes might be a good idea.
Low carbohydrate levels. Carbohydrate is the main energy source for our muscles. If we run low this can have an effect on the muscles.
- More on Carbohydrate drinks
Tight calf muscles
Very tight calf muscles. Tight muscles have contracted and squeezed the blood out of them. The muscle then has restricted blood and nutrients which will affect how well it can work.
- More on Tight calf muscles
Severe cramps & complications
A bout of severe leg cramps may cause damage to the muscle. Fibres of the muscle are torn due to the shear force of the involuntary contraction causing a calf strain.
If this happens your muscle will be painful for some time afterwards. It is important you follow a full Calf strain rehabilitation program with sports massage treatment undertaken to restore the muscle to its original condition.
- More on Calf strains
Treatment for cramp
If you suffer a bout of cramps then there are things you can do both immediately to relieve pain, and later on after it has passed.
If you are suffering from a bout of calf muscle cramps, stretch the muscles. Hold the stretch for as long as is necessary. Sometimes it is helpful to get a partner, or first aider to help you stretch.
Gentle massage of your calf muscles may help relieve the symptoms by encouraging blood flow and helping to stretch the muscle.
Over the following days, deep tissue massage can help relax your muscles and stimulate blood flow, healing any potential damage that might have occurred.
When the muscle suffers cramps it goes into spasms. The spasm squeezes the blood out of the muscle like a sponge preventing the muscle from getting its nutrients. In addition, if the spasm is severe then there may be damage to the muscle (a muscle strain).
Massage can also be of benefit in the days and weeks following a bout of cramps as well as in preventing cramps. It can also help with stretching a muscle, particularly transversely or sideways in a way that normal stretching cannot.
- More on Calf massage
Pinch your top lip
There is a theory that states if you pinch your top lip then a nervous reaction causes the cramp to go – worth a try.
Should I see a doctor?
If you regularly suffer from cramps then seek medical advice. A professional therapist can apply sports massage techniques to improve the condition of the muscles.
They can advise on stretching and strengthening to help prevent future bouts of cramps as well as examine whether dehydration, lack of salt or insufficient diet may be a possible cause.
It may be that you are not getting enough salt in your diet and this is a popular theory about cramps, however, there is so much salt in processed foods in the western world’s diets that lack of salt is an unlikely cause of cramps.