The cause of muscle cramping is a genuine medical mystery. Despite years of studies, there are no definitive answers to the question of cause or relief. As a result, muscle cramping is often pushed aside as something that can be neither helped nor healed. Despite the questions, years of collecting my own anecdotal evidence led me to my own hypothesis; an investigation of an individual’s lifestyle choices and patterns may give insight into preventative measures. The good news is this “investigation” does not require a medical appointment. Your own sleuthing of how behaviors affect your body may reveal that your own insight is the best prescription for muscle cramping.
While doctors cannot offer a remedy or a cause of a muscle cramp, they do know that a muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle, a group of muscles, a hollow organ, or an orifice. Muscles prone to cramping include the foot and calf muscles; the front and back of the thighs; the hands, arms, and abdomen; and muscles along the rib cage. The anecdotal causes, supported by both the greater medical community and myself, are many. Low levels of electrolytes in the blood, fluid imbalance and dehydration, and lack of fitness can be investigated to both understand and address the potential cause specific to your body.
Electrolytes are minerals in the blood that, among other important functions, regulate hydration, acidity of blood (pH), blood pressure, and muscle function. In very simplistic terms, the common electrolytes (calcium, sodium, and potassium) must be present in the body for proper muscle contraction. An imbalance in these electrolytes can lead to muscle cramps—when muscles contract too severely. To avoid this imbalance, effective dietary choices, based on a balanced whole food diet, are necessary. Start by adding foods high in these necessary electrolytes, like dark leafy greens, squash, mushrooms, avocados, bananas, yogurt, white beans, and salmon, to your diet every day.
Proper hydration is necessary for every cell, tissue, and organ in the body to maintain normal system body functions. While there is no conclusive evidence that proper hydration staves off muscle cramps, we do know that hydration helps your muscles contract and relax more easily and that muscle cramps occur with severe dehydration. Further, from my own professional experience, those clients who maintain a regular water-consumption schedule do not experience the same severity and regularity of muscle cramps. To determine the amount of water your body needs, simply divide your body weight by two. The resulting number is how many ounces of water your body requires daily.
Movement allows for balanced circulation throughout the body. Sitting or lying down for prolonged periods of time without the balance of muscle movement can reduce blood flow through muscles, causing them to cramp. Any kind of constructive and regular use of the muscles—from walking or lifting weights to stretching, yoga, or Pilates—is a preventative measure to avoid cramping.
Take the time to test these potential remedies one by one and notice how your body is affected. If after two weeks one remedy does not work, include the next remedy in your life. The addition of any or all of these remedies to your daily routine will only enhance your overall life, so take on this challenge as a way to not only relieve annoying muscle cramping but also live a healthier life.
- Crowd out the bad with the good. Use the 3:1 rule to add three fruits and/or vegetables high in potassium, magnesium, and calcium to your daily diet and reduce your consumption of dehydrating fluids such as coffee and alcohol. The addition of these important nutrients will quickly bring your body back to the balance needed to potentially stave off muscle cramping.
- Deepen sleep with increased fitness. Nocturnal muscle cramping prevents people from falling asleep and can awaken those already asleep, affecting their overall sleep patterns. Lack of sleep affects everything from your decreased memory to increased appetite. Luckily, one of the top remedies to aid in avoiding nocturnal night cramps as well as improving overall sleep is fitness, making the addition of fitness an easy way to kill two birds with one stone. Add light stretching of the muscle that cramps and light movement, such as riding a stationary bike or taking a leisurely walk in the evening, prior to sleeping to decrease your chances of night cramps and increase your chances of a more productive next day.
- When all else fails, consider an old wives’ tale. More than one client and plenty of sources on the Internet claim that placing a bar of soap between your sheets at the bottom of the bed aids in relieving nocturnal foot and leg cramps. In short, the hypothesis (remember this is an old wives’ tale) is that the soap contains a natural scent molecule that has antispasmodic properties. It is worth a shot!