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We’ve all probably experienced it: a sudden sharp pain in the calf or hamstring that makes us gasp. Known as a charley horse, it occurs when a muscle, commonly in the leg, suddenly contracts and stiffens like a rock. This often occurs after a long or intense workout, especially in hot weather, but cramps can also hit out of nowhere.
They can be caused by dehydration, fatigue, overexertion or electrolyte depletion, which cause the nerves to not ignite; they usually wear off within 15 minutes, tend to become more prevalent with age, and are more common in women than men. If a cramp lasts longer than 30 minutes, call your doctor, as it could be a sign of a more serious problem such as a narrowed artery or neurological condition, says Bryant Walrod, MD, a sports medicine physician at Ohio State. University Wexner Medical Center.
To keep your muscles calm and keep pain at bay, try these steps.
How to prevent muscle cramps
✔️ Improve your fitness.
We lose muscle mass and strength as early as the age of 30, which contributes to fatigue and overexertion, triggers of cramps. “Regularly active muscles get used to twitching and are less prone to spasm,” says Matthew Matava, M.D., chief of sports medicine at Washington University Orthopedics in St. Louis.
Start with moderate activity to avoid overdoing it and stretch before and after; this increases blood flow and stretches the muscle fibers to make them less likely to involuntarily contract.
✔️ Get your minerals.
Fill up on fruits and vegetables rich in electrolyte minerals like sodium, magnesium, and potassium, which help stimulate the electrical signals that regulate muscle function. “Most people can get all the electrolytes they need with a healthy diet,” says Dr. Matava, so you don’t need to sip sugary sports drinks. The best food choices: green leafy vegetables, bananas and black beans.
The fluid helps your muscles relax and contract, so water plenty of water throughout the day, especially in hot weather when sweat depletes the body’s fluid and electrolyte stores. Make sure you drink an hour before, during and after your workout to rehydrate.
How to get relief from muscle cramps
✔️ Train those muscles.
Gently massage and stretch a cramped muscle to help it relax. “Try to contract the opposite muscle group to the one having the cramps; this uses the body’s normal reflex that “turns off” a muscle that has the opposite function, “says Dr. Matava. For example, contracting the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh can help relieve hamstring cramps in the thigh. rear.
✔️ Apply heat or ice.
A warm towel or heating pad can help relieve pain by increasing blood flow. If the pain persists after cramps, ice can help tame inflammation and relieve discomfort.
✔️ Manage your medicines.
Muscle cramps can be a side effect of some medications for hypertension, high cholesterol, and asthma. Ask your doctor for a lower dose or a different drug that doesn’t cause muscle spasms.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Prevention.
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