Muscle cramps: causes and treatment routes



Muscle cramps occur especially in athletes and can be very painful. We reveal possible causes and what can be done about them.

Muscle cramps: woman with cramp in her leg

What are muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps mean a sudden and violent tension in a muscle or muscle group that can be very painful. The legs are often affected, and the muscle cramps appear as calf cramps, especially at night. But theoretically, muscle cramps can develop in all muscle groups. In many cases, the cramps are harmless, but sometimes there can be a serious illness behind them.

Who is affected by muscle cramps?

Basically, everyone can experience a muscle spasm, but athletes are often affected who do not give their muscles enough rest between training sessions. The risk of muscle cramps and calf cramps also increases with age: the older we get, the greater the likelihood of nighttime calf cramps and cramps during periods of rest.

Common causes of muscle cramps

It is not always possible to find a clear cause of muscle cramps or calf cramps. However, the following things often play a role:
  • General tension, e.g. B. through a lot of training
  • Sports injuries
  • Underdeveloped muscles due to lack exercise
  • Lack of fluids
  • Imbalanced mineral balance, e.g. B. due to a magnesium deficiency or a lack of potassium or calcium
  • Hormone or metabolic disorders, e.g. B. Underactive thyroid or overactive thyroid
  • Various diseases, e.g. B. the nerves or diabetes
  • Certain medications
  • Low electrolyte levels, e.g. B. by alcohol abuse
  • Hormonal fluctuations, e.g. B. through pregnancy
Even after dialysis, cramps can develop because dialysis draws a lot of fluid from the body.

Symptoms: How do muscle cramps express themselves?

Muscle cramps are not only noticeable through actual and painful spasms. There are other symptoms that suggest a muscle cramp. These include:
  • Muscle twitching
  • Slight cramp-like pain in the arms or trunk
  • Physical weakness
  • Additional tension headache
  • Tingling or persistent numbness (these symptoms can be an emergency!)
It is important to know that muscle twitching and cramps in the arms or torso have a pathological cause significantly more often than, for example, occasional calf cramps at night. In order to find the trigger, you should above all have the mineral balance checked, e.g. B. rule out a lack of magnesium. 

When should I see a doctor about muscle cramps?

If the muscle spasms only appear from time to time, this is usually harmless and does not need to be considered further - because a single thoughtless movement can lead to such a spasm. The situation is different if the muscle cramps are accompanied by physical weakness or severe loss of fluid (e.g. due to diarrhea or vomiting) or illnesses are known to be possible triggers. Even if there is alcohol abuse, a doctor should be consulted. Tingling and numbness can even be a case for the emergency doctor!
The doctor will usually carry out a physical examination, ask the person concerned about symptoms and, above all, inquire about the type of muscle cramps. He can ask the following questions, for example:
  • Where do the cramps occur?
  • How long do they last?
  • How painful are they perceived?
  • How often do they occur?
  • Does the patient already suspect possible triggers?
The causes can be narrowed down, above all based on the other symptoms. A lack of fluid indicates z. B. from diarrhea or vomiting, while a heavyweight gain and sleep disorders can be signs of an underactive thyroid. A blood test can also be used to determine whether there is a lack of nutrients such as magnesium. Depending on the suspected cause, the family doctor can then refer the patient to a specialist, e.g. B. from neurology for suspected nerve disorders or orthopedics for complaints of the musculoskeletal system.

Treatment: what helps against muscle cramps?

An acute muscle spasm can best be alleviated by stretching the affected muscle. To do this, you can stretch your leg, pull the tip of your foot towards your body, and stretch your heel forward. In fact, most people even instinctively make such a stretch against cramps. Depending on the severity of the cramp, a light massage of the affected muscle can also help.
In the long run, you can only do something about muscle cramps if you know the exact cause. Underlying diseases, for example, should be treated. In the event of a lack of fluids, it is important to drink a lot: 2.5 liters a day is the minimum. If you exercise a lot or live in an environment with high temperatures, you drink more.
A balanced and healthy diet is also important for an optimal supply of nutrients. This includes a lot of vegetables and fruit, lean meat, a lot of fish and a lot of fiber, which are found in whole grain products, for example. Nuts are also considered very healthy. Despite healthy eating, B. a lack of magnesium or calcium before, supplementation may be useful in consultation with the doctor.
In order for our muscles to be strong and healthy, they also need exercise. Strength training, in particular, is good for our muscles, but endurance training such as running or swimming keeps us fit. Already three times a week, 30 minutes of exercise are considered sufficient to strengthen the muscles.

Do medications help against muscle spasms?

There are some medications that are used to relieve muscle spasms, but today they are mostly avoided. Because these drugs are often associated with strong side effects. The medication can be tested in close consultation with the doctor and in the case of severe muscle spasms, but it is better to stop taking the strong side effects and to test other methods for the spasms.

Prevention tips: How can muscle cramps be prevented?

If the trigger for the cramps is known, treatment of the corresponding cause often ensures that the symptoms stop or at least occur less frequently. If there are no exact causes, a few small lifestyle improvements can usually help. These include:
  • Regular stretching of all muscles
  • Refrain from luxury foods such as alcohol and cigarettes
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Gentle muscle relaxation before bed
  • Drink enough and eat a balanced diet every day
  • Perform regular blood tests to check e.g. B. early detection of a lack of magnesium
Reading tips: We explain here how to combat nighttime leg crampsIn addition, we reveal everything about sleeping problems, how you can get nightmares under control and why leg cramps occur at night.
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