Muscle Cramps: What Causes Them, How to Avoid Them
It’s not known what causes muscle cramps, although they’re often associated with excessive heat and the loss of fluids and minerals, such as calcium, sodium, and potassium, through sweat. In addition, a tight muscle tends to cramp more easily. They occur without warning, typically in a working muscle. Muscle cramps usually occur near the end of the activity, after the body has been stressed for a period of time.
Muscle cramps are more common in certain types of sports and tend to occur in the same body parts for players in those activities. In sports that involve running, like soccer, rugby, and American football, muscle cramps commonly occur in the calf, hamstrings and quadriceps (thigh) muscles. Players going down late in a match and needing to have their legs stretched is relatively common during soccer matches.
Some signs and symptoms of muscle cramps include:
Knotting of muscles and muscle pain
Excessive saltiness of sweat, or visible dried salt on the skin
Excessive dehydration. When dehydrated, the body loses its ability to cool itself.
Surface of the affected area is hard and contracted.
Common Causes of Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps tend to occur after the body has been stressed for some time, usually toward the end of a match and especially in overtime due to exhaustion of the body or muscle. The following problems can cause a cramp, either alone or in combination:
Overuse of particular muscle groups during strenuous exercise
Failure to stretch or warm up properly
Low glucose (blood sugar) levels
Lactic acid formation in working muscles
Restricted circulation. Players sometimes use shin guards with an elastic band around the calf. Other players use bands or tape to hold shin guards in place. If these bands are too tight, it can cause a cramp due to reduced circulation.
Preventing Muscle Cramps
Dehydration and loss of minerals are associated with muscle cramps, so staying well hydrated, replacing minerals, and stretching are the best ways to prevent them. Mineral deficiencies, especially of sodium, contribute to the inability of the muscle to receive nerve impulses.
Adequate hydration should occur on a daily basis, and hydration should increase for the several days leading up to a match and especially a tournament. Dehydration is a cumulative condition, and can’t be corrected by just drinking a lot during a match.
Work on flexibility daily. Stretch thoroughly every day, and especially on game day.
Avoid the types of fluids that cause dehydration. These include caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and soda.
When increasing training or preparing for a tournament, increase the workload incrementally by perhaps five percent a week.
And when getting back into season after a period of reduced exercise, (after an injury or when coming off the off-season, for example) switching from a relaxed summer season to the high-intensity fall, for instance), don’t plunge into full training immediately. Suddenly starting a rigorous exercise program without easing into the increased stress on your body can cause muscle cramps. It can also lead to injury to ligaments or tendons.
Thoroughly warm up before a match to help improve circulation and flexibility.
Relieving Muscle Cramps
A muscle cramp starts with intense and sudden pain, sometimes making the player immediately go down.
If muscle cramps occur, try relieving them by:
- Stretching. Since a muscle cramp is a contraction of a muscle, relief can come from getting the muscle to relax by slowly stretching it. Pay particular attention to those muscle groups that tend to cramp for soccer players, especially calves, thighs, and hamstrings.
- If you get a calf cramp, try holding the muscle with one hand and gently pull back on your toes with the other. Point your toes upward and heel downward to help relieve the spasm.
- Try walking. This can help, especially if you can walk with your full weight on your heels.
- Drink fluids. Rehydrate, particularly with a liquid that contains electrolytes. Replenishing the minerals needed to replenish those lost through sweat can help relieve the cramps.
- Apply ice to the area of the cramp.
- Seek out a shady, cool place to rest.
- Recover. Don’t exercise the muscle until it’s recovered and is no longer contracting.
- Remember the acronym RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) for ways to relieve a cramp. Add an H, for hydration (RICHE), since dehydration is often a cause of muscle cramps.
Muscle cramps are typically more of a nuisance than a serious issue, but they are painful and keep a player from performing at his best level. Stretching, hydration, and thoroughly warming up will go a long way to preventing them.