It’s happened to everyone. You might be at the free throw line in the last three seconds of the basketball game and the team is counting on you, or maybe you’re at a party and that special person has finally asked you to dance. You don’t want them, they hurt, and they always happen at a bad time – muscle cramps.
What are they? Where do they come from? Is there anything that can be done to avoid them or relieve them? How do you treat them?
A muscle cramp is a painful spasm, a sudden, violent tightening of several muscles in the same location. This occurs most commonly in the leg, usually in the calf muscle. The pupil in your eye contracts when it’s exposed to bright lights, without pain. But when you have a muscle cramp, the contracting of the muscle can be excruciating.
Experts don’t know exactly what happens to cause these cramps. They have several good ideas, however. One theory is that the muscles are simply overworked. This might happen if you ignore the signs of fatigue and push yourself beyond the point at which your body should have taken a rest. A second idea is that the muscle is deprived of fluids. Through perspiration and exertion, you can lose the necessary minerals and fluids that help your muscles work painlessly. Just as denying yourself food may result in painful contractions of the stomach, so may denying your muscles mineral-rich liquid cause painful contractions of the muscle. The minerals that your muscles need include sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium. These are also known as electrolytes.
To treat muscle cramps, ice packs on the muscle may help. This can be followed by massage and gradual stretching.
Almost everyone gets a muscle cramp at some time. There are some steps you can take before exercising that can lessen the likelihood of cramping, however. First, it is important to slowly stretch the leg muscles before beginning any physical activity. Second, make sure you take plenty of fluids before, during, and after physical activity, but stay away from caffeine if you tend to cramp often. A coach, athletic trainer, physical education instructor, health education teacher, or school nurse could suggest the best fluid to use.
Most important, it is never a good idea to continue pushing yourself when you feel thirsty and fatigued. These are signals from your body that it needs special attention NOW.
More Aches and Pains
In addition to the muscle cramp, there are other messages that your body sends to your brain to let you know it needs attention. These messages may take the form of muscle strains, stitches in your side, muscle soreness, and knee pain.
Muscle are strained when they are pulled to the point of tearing. Like a muscle cramp, these often occur in the leg – most commonly in the upper part of the leg. Other strain-prone areas are the groin and gluteal muscles.
A strain is one of the most common injuries in sports. It is a clear and painful message that you need to take care of that part of your body. Athletes participating in any sport that requires sudden, quick movement are most likely to suffer this injury. This is often a result of poor conditioning, overtraining, lack of flexibility, or imbalance of muscle strength – when the muscles in one leg are far stronger than the other.
A pain in your knee may be a strain on the knee caused from rapid growth or a tearing of tendons or ligaments. It is best to consult your doctor when you have long-lasting knee pain.
Just as a cut in the skin needs time to heal, so does a tear in the muscle. This means rest from strenuous activity. Ice packs are placed on the strain for a period of time, a tight elastic wrap is placed around the strain, and the area is elevated and given adequate rest.
The best way to prevent a strain is through a good program of strengthening and stretching of all the major muscle areas.
Muscles become sore when they haven’t been exercised. Then, whenever you use them a little too hard and a little too long, they are going to let you know about it the next day. Muscle soreness is a much milder form of a strain, without muscle tear.
Because the muscles have not actually been torn as in a muscle strain, a warm bath is soothing to sore muscles. Another treatment is giving the muscles a day or two rest and resuming your exercise program at a slower pace, remembering to warm up.
The simplest prevention for muscle soreness is a slow, sensible program to get muscles strong and flexible. Light stretching immediately after an activity also helps to reduce muscle soreness. Don’t believe anyone who says, “No pain, no gain!” You should be able to achieve your goal without sore muscles.
Have you ever been walking or running fast and felt a cramp in your side? These side stitches are caused by a muscle cramp. There are several small muscles located between the ribs. These muscles help control breathing. When they are not in condition, they do not absorb oxygen as efficiently as they do when they are in condition. The lack of oxygen is the cause of your side stitch. This can be prevented by slowly working up to activities that require deep breathing. Like any muscle, these small muscles need to be conditioned. Whenever you feel yourself gasping for air, your body is telling you it’s time to slow down.
Aches, pains, strains, and stitches are all telling you something. Listen to your body talk! It’s sending an important message.