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How to treat a muscle cramp: First aid advice to help reduce pain

How to treat a muscle cramp: First aid advice to help reduce pain

Nearly everyone experiences a muscle cramp throughout out their lifetime and muscular cramps occur for several reasons. Medications, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, circulatory and vitamin deficiencies all can cause a muscular cramp. A cramp is a strong, forceful muscular contraction usually predicated by twitching or fasciculation, which is a type of built in warning mechanism. Once a muscle cramps, the muscle fibers stay in a shortened state with the inability to release or relax. The longer the muscle is cramped the less blood flow it receives and the more sore it can get.


Do

Do relax and stop exercising

Although a cramp is a minor sports medicine injury, it can be extremely painful, debilitating, and can reduce performance to a hault. Some people try to be tough about a cramp and almost question whether it will last and try exercising through it. Depending on the exercise, one should immediately stop, curtail their activity no matter if it be basketball, football or running.

Do stretch

When a muscle cramps its muscle fibers actually shorten. The most important and easiest maneuver against a cramp is stretching the affected. The use of assistive devices like a stretch out strap or belt is ideal, but the blankets work great if you cramp in bed.

Do manual therapy

Human instinct is to touch, rub or begin to massage the muscle that is cramped. Manual therapy is good, but the strongest research in manual therapy for a cramp is focused on acupressure and shiatsu type techniques to certain motor points in the muscle.

Do hydrate with electrolytes

Many cramps are simply related to being in a state of cellular dehydration. Furthermore, electrolytes literally control the permeability of the cells. When sodium and potassium are present in the correct amounts cells function optimally. When you have a cramp eating and drinking fluids will not help acutely but will always support the proper milieu.

Do get an MD consult

Go visit your physician if you notice cramping in different muscles and with almost every bout of exercise. Systemic and increased frequency of cramping can be the sign of other medical concerns, don’t wait.


Don't

Do not continue to exercise through the cramp

Many exercisers will simply try to ignore the cramp and continue exercising. Not a good idea! I have seen many people try to continue exercise while cramping - it is not a pretty sight. Many either totally collapse and fall to the ground and others risk further injury.

Do not ice

Ice is not nice. Many people think of using a physical agent like ice for a cramp. Placing ice on a cramp will keep it in a cramp while heat may warm and loosen muscle fibers releasing it. After a major injury or post workout use ice to decrease a muscle hangover, but to relax a muscle and speed up the nutrient rich blood flow through vasodilated vessels ensure relaxation of a cramped muscle.

Do not put the cramped muscle in a contracted/shortened position

It is sometimes hard to find a relaxing position to rest after a cramp. It is vital to position that joint or muscle so that the muscle stays at normal resting length or even with a slight stretch. If you rest a previously cramped muscle in a shortened position it is highly likely it will cramp again. Be smart -- relax in the stretched position.

Do not strength train the cramped muscle

Some people think that if they use a strength training technique during the cramp the muscle will release and respond on its own. Worst yet, some believe you should train that muscle after it cramps. Most of the time this is not the case and working out the cramped muscle is not advised. Shortening and tightening the muscle will only make it worse and the cramp may become chronic. Stay away from strength and conditioning of the cramped muscle and resume normal training of that muscle tomorrow.

Do not ignore it long term

If you have cramping more often than not it with both rest and activity, it may be related to a deeper underlying medical condition. Be honest with yourself and see your physician if you suffer from regular cramps.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

It is obvious that taking care of a cramp can be quite simple, but by not knowing what to do or even doing the wrong thing can risk or injuring the muscle further. When you sustain a cramp, stop exercising, use heat, and stretch. Once released, relax in the stretched position and continue gently stretching throughout the day. Dont forget to hydrate, add some electrolytes to your water and ensure a proper diet including vitamins.


More expert advice about Injuries

Photo Credits: lzf/bigstock.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Dr. Scott A. Weiss DPT LATC CSCS FACSMLicensed Physical Therapist and Board Certified Athletic Trainer

Dr. Scott Weiss is a licensed physical therapist and board certified athletic trainer in the state of New York. He is also a registered exercise physiologist, strength and conditioning specialist and advanced personal trainer with over twenty ye...

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