Muscle cramps occur when skeletal muscles – those that move bones and are normally under your control – start contracting on their own. The pain, which can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer, can be intense, but most of the time, cramps don’t indicate a serious medical problem. They often develop when muscles are stressed from overdoing exercise or when you hold your body in a position that keeps muscles tightened for a long time. While cramps can strike any skeletal muscle, some common spots are in the legs: calves, hamstrings and quadriceps. But if you’re prepared, you can avoid them.
Strong muscles are better able to withstand stress from exertion, and keeping muscles fit is important for older people, since age-related muscle loss accelerates with inactivity. “Muscles accustomed to exercise have less chance of fatigue, which is a main factor in cramping,” says Elizabeth Matzkin, chief of women’s sports medicine at Harvard Medical School. If starting a new exercise regimen, build up your strength gradually to minimise the chance of cramping.
Soothe cramping muscles by gently stretching them, which lengthens muscle fibres and encourages them to relax. If you tend to develop leg cramps in bed, keep a towel within reach that you can use to wrap around your foot and pull the foot back toward you while you’re lying down. Staying limber will help, so incorporate active stretching into your daily routine as well as stretching after a workout. Whenever you stretch focus on the areas that are prone to cramping.
Minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium regulate electrical signals that trigger muscle contractions. “Deficiency or losses through sweat may lead to muscles seizing up,” says Joseph Herrera, chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Health System. Eat a variety of mineral- rich foods like dairy, fruit, leafy vegetables, and whole grains. If you exercise for more than an hour, hydrate with a sports drink that contains electrolytes.