Cramp is an extremely unpleasant sensation that can feel paralysing. It can occur at any time, but happens more commonly after sleep and during or after exercise.

There are different types of cramp that can occur in various parts of the body. Here are some examples:

1) Foot Cramp

Foot cramp can occur in the toes, arch of the foot or calf muscles. They happen when the muscles spasm. The spasm can occur when the muscle has contracted suddenly and can’t relax.

2) Hand Cramp

Hand cramps can be chronic (have developed over time), acute (recent in origin) from injury or muscle fatigue or can be a result of medical conditions such as diabetes.

3) Menstrual Cramp

Menstrual cramp is caused by contractions in the uterus. The pain happens when part of the uterus briefly loses its supply of oxygen.

4) Leg cramp

Leg cramp can occur when excessive strain is placed on the leg muscles; when there is a sudden restriction to the blood supply to the muscles, or when unusual nerve activity occurs during sleep. The tissue that connects muscle to bone, known as tendons can become too short, which again can be a cause of leg cramp. Neurological conditions such as motor neurone disease can cause leg cramps as the nerves to the leg muscles can be affected. The extra weight gained in pregnancy can also place a strain on the muscles in the leg, leading to a higher chance of cramping.


Causes of Cramp

Dehydration, mineral deficiencies and over-exerting yourself during exercise are common causes of cramps. Dehydration reduces the level of calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium (electrolytes) that can prevent cramp from occurring.

– Calcium helps to transmit nerve impulses to the cells of the muscles which enables them to both relax and contract.

– Sodium is the key electrolyte that is lost through sweat during exercise. If sodium levels are too low this can be a factor in the cause of muscle cramp.

– Potassium enables cells to work properly and assists to enable the correct water and electrolyte balance. If this balance is disturbed, for example during exercise, cramp can occur.

– Magnesium relaxes blood vessels and decreases blood pressure, which enables a healthy circulation and also decreases pain by blocking receptors in the brain and nervous system.


Preventing Cramp

Make sure you stay hydrated during the day, particularly if you are going to exercise. Avoid smoking and alcohol, as these both increase the risk of dehydration. Women who exercise regularly have been proven to usually experience much less menstrual pain that those that don’t; so exercise is recommended to help with these types of cramps. Dehydration combined with the overheating when exercising can cause muscle cramps, so it is essential to stay hydrated, preferably with plenty of water; or a good quality sports drink can balance your electrolytes correctly. Although there may be a temptation to take supplements of electrolytes, this can cause side effects in other areas, so it is advisable to find natural sources of these. Potatoes (particularly the skin), bananas, carrots and fish are good sources of potassium; Nuts, beans and bran are good sources of magnesium; Milk, cheese and spinach are all good sources of calcium. Good quality sea-salt can help sodium levels. If you experience cramp regularly in a specific place during sport, your foot for example, there are plenty of warm-up rubs available that prepare the muscles for exercise. There is a conflicting discussion referring to the tablet-form ‘quinine bisulphate’, which has been prescribed by doctors to help nighttime leg cramps. As the side effects may be a risk, an alternative could be to try a little bottle of tonic water each evening until there is an improvement, this could be beneficial as it only contains a small amount of quinine. It may seem like common sense, but wearing the right clothes can also make a difference. Extremely tight clothes for example can restrict blood flow and wearing the wrong footwear, eg/ high-heel shoes can aggravate foot cramps.

Also, if you exercise, always make sure you warm up before your routine and cool down properly afterwards. This is essential, so despite how busy you are you should make time for this.


Karen Hill