Muscle cramps, those unpredictable spasms, can be very frustrating and perplexing. If you ever go through periods of cramping when you play or practice, you know from experience that they can stop you in your tracks.
Exercise physiologists have attempted to study muscle cramps, however, cramps are difficult to study because it is hard to initiate one. They are spontaneous and unpredictable.
Theories as to what causes cramps are dehydration, nutritional imbalances, fatigued muscles, or possibly, nerve malfunction. Nerves send messages to the muscle to contract, so there are new theories that the cramping may begin at the nerve.
Muscle cramps most commonly occur among athletes who work their muscles to the point of exhaustion. The overexertion theory is that when a muscle gets tired, the numerous muscle fibers that comprise the muscle fail to contract in a synchronized rhythm. This is likely related to over-stimulation from the nerves that trigger the muscles to contract.
Remedies that may work to relieve muscle cramps are massage, stretching, acupressure, and some people swear by pinching their upper lip.
Nutritional reasons that may cause muscle cramps are large fluid losses and/or a large electrolyte imbalance. Staying well hydrated will decrease the risk of muscle cramps which means drinking adequate amounts of fluid before, during and after exercise.
The easiest way to know if you are well hydrated is if your urine is the color of pale lemonade.
Large losses of the electrolyte, sodium, can contribute to cramps which can happen during heavy sweating. An athlete may lose 700-1500 mg of sodium in one hour which may disturb the concentration of sodium around specific nerve endings and muscle fibers and lead to muscle cramps.
Large sodium losses occur in athletes who work out day after day in a way that leads to profuse sweating.
One of the electrolytes that athletes commonly think is a cause of cramping is potassium, however, the body does not lose large amounts of potassium during sweating. Eating potassium rich foods cannot hurt you, so you consuming an ample amount of fruits and vegetables will increase potassium intake.
Anecdotal theories to stop cramps include drinking pickle juice or consuming a package of mustard. The theories behind why these may work are the high concentration of sodium or perhaps the acidic concentration, but it is not well understood.
Some athletes are using a new product called HotShot.
If you are plagued by muscle cramps or want to prevent them, it is important to experiment with the many different measures you can take to decrease your risk for cramps and find out what works best for you.
About Tracy OwensTracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She has worked in private practice, providing clinical and sports nutrition for over 20 years. Her two sons and two daughters have played AAU baseball, USSSA baseball, Legion baseball, Challenge, United, Premier, Elite and ECNL soccer at Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), USTA tennis, summer swim teams, and high school football, swimming, baseball and soccer. Two of her children played Division 1 soccer at North Carolina State University.
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