Cramp is an involuntary contraction of the muscle which can not only be very painful but may also cause muscle damage in severe cases. We look at the possible causes and treatment options available.
What are leg cramps?
Leg cramps are painful contractions of the muscle that happen involuntarily or without the athlete intending them to happen. Leg cramps affect most people who train hard, particularly runners at some point in their career. A common site for leg cramps is the calf muscles which consist of the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle.
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 caused by not taking on enough water, especially in hot conditions. Low water means low blood volume which in turn affects the muscles.
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.
Very tight 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.
A bout of severe leg cramp may cause damage to the muscle. Fibres of the muscle may be torn due to the shear strength of the muscle contraction. If this happens the muscle will be painful for some time afterward. It is essential the full rehabilitation programme with sports massage treatment is undertaken to restore the muscle to its original condition. The injury can be treated in the same way as a calf muscle strain.
Treatment for cramp
If you are suffering from a bout of cramp, stretch the muscles involved. Hold the stretch for as long as is necessary. Gentle massage of the muscles may also help relieve the symptoms by encouraging blood flow.
There is a theory that states if you pinch your top lip then a nervous reaction causes the cramp to go – worth a try. See a sports injury professional who can advise on rehabilitation and prevent future bouts of cramp.
A professional therapist can apply sports massage techniques to improve the condition of the muscle helping tight or knotted areas relax. They can advise on stretching and strengthening to help prevent future bouts of cramp 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 cramp, however, there is so much salt in processed foods in the western world’s diets that lack of salt is an unlikely cause of cramp.
Sports massage and cramp
Massage can be beneficial in relieving cramp as it happens by stimulating blood flow and helping to stretch the muscle. Massage can also be of benefit in the days and weeks following a bout of cramp as well as in preventing cramp.
When the muscle suffers cramp it goes into spasm. 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).
The benefits of sports massage are to help to release tension in the muscle and stimulate blood flow. It can also help with stretching a muscle, particularly transversely or sideways in a way that normal stretching cannot.
Massage must not be performed during the acute stage of this injury – usually 48 hours after injury. This is because if there is still bleeding then heat and massage will increase bleeding, not stop it.