Muscle Cramps

1 Muscle Cramps Summary

Muscle cramps are characterized by a sudden feeling of hard, tight, and painful muscles. Cramps are caused by involuntary contractions of muscles. It is seen in the thigh, hand, and abdomen muscles, though it is more commonly found in foot and calf muscles.

Sudden and sharp pain in the muscle is a symptom of muscle cramp. In some cases, a lump of muscle tissue can be seen under the skin. Muscle cramps are harmless and often resolve soon. It may not require any specific medical care.

Cramps warrant medical attention if it occurs frequently or is associated with:

  • Severe discomfort or pain
  • Swelling in legs
  • Reddishness and changes in skin

It is better to get medical help if the cramp does not improve with home care or if it is not caused by any obvious cause like strenuous exercise.

Overstretching or overuse of a muscle is a common cause of muscle cramps. Dehydration, muscle strain, and keeping a part in the same position for a long duration may also result in cramps.

Certain medical conditions may also lead to cramps. This includes nerve compression, mineral depletion, and inadequate blood supply. Low levels of minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium are known to cause cramps in muscles.

Other causes include alcoholism, pregnancy, kidney failure, and hypothyroidism. Major risk factors for muscle cramps include old age, dehydration, pregnancy, and certain medical conditions. Diabetes, thyroid disorders, and nerve diseases increase the risk of developing cramps.

Physical examination is the best way to diagnose muscle cramps. Information on frequency, affected muscles, medications were taken, use of alcohol, exercise regimen, and intake of fluids also help in identifying the cause of pain in muscles.

A blood test is suggested to check for levels of minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Kidney and thyroid function tests are also recommended. Electromyography is a method to measure the activity of muscles and also to check for abnormalities in the functioning. Myelography is an imaging technique used to visualize the functioning of the spinal cord.

Pain and spasm in the muscles can be relieved by using a cold compress. Hot cloth compress or heating pad also may be helpful in alleviating pain. Stretching the affected muscle is another method to reduce pain.

Over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medications are available that will help in alleviating pain and swelling in the muscle. Prescription muscle relaxants are suggested in severe cases of cramps that disturb sleep. Cramps caused by low levels of minerals are treated with supplements.

Most forms of muscle cramps can be prevented by adequate stretching before a sports activity or exercise. Not warming up enough may cause injury to muscle and lead to strain. Exercise should be avoided after eating.

Reduce the intake of caffeine and keep oneself well hydrated. Fluid intake should be increased according to the activity. Having foods rich in calcium and potassium like milk and oranges are natural ways of improving muscle activity. Vitamin supplements may be helpful in providing adequate nutrients and minerals.

2 Causes

Muscle cramps may be caused by several factors. Overuse of muscle is one of the most common causes of cramps. It is more common among endurance athletes and elderly people who do strenuous physical activities.

It most often happens when the body is not conditioned. When the muscle is not prepared it may lead to fatigue and cramp. The cramps may develop at the end of the intense exercise or after few hours of activity.

Older people have natural muscle loss and this accelerates with the lack of activity. This increases their susceptibility to having cramps after strenuous physical activity.

Cramps are triggered by dehydration and muscle injury as well. Low levels of minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium ma also result in muscle cramps. Some other causes include low blood supply to muscles and some medical conditions. Spinal nerve compression, alcoholism, pregnancy, kidney failure, and hypothyroidism may also cause muscle cramps.

Some of the possible causes of muscle cramps include: 

Sprains and strains – these are injuries caused by physical activity. Sprains and strains may not require medical attention but may lead to muscle cramps.

Peripheral neuropathy – this condition is caused by abnormal functioning of peripheral nerves. Tingling sensation, numbness in hands and feet, drop in blood pressure, and muscle cramps are common symptoms of this condition.

Heat emergencies – exposure to hot weather is a common cause of muscle cramps. These cramps may then lead to exhaustion and heatstroke.

Low blood potassium and sodium – low levels of these minerals may lead to fatigue, weakness, and muscle cramps along with other symptoms.

Hypoparathyroidism – reduction in the levels of parathyroid hormones result in hypoparathyroidism. Most of the symptoms of this condition are caused by low levels of calcium in the blood.

Kidney failure – this condition results from the inability of the organs to remove waste effectively from the blood. Swelling in ankles, feet, breathlessness, reduced urination, nausea, and muscle cramps are symptoms of this condition.

Diabetic ketoacidosis – this is a serious complication of diabetes. As the body is unable to use sugars effectively, fat is burnt to fuel the processes. This causes the accumulation of ketones in the body, leading to diabetic ketoacidosis. It causes frequent urination, excessive thirst, abdominal pain, and muscle cramps as symptoms.

Glomerulonephritis – also known as nephritis, this condition is caused by damage to glomeruli. It affects the functioning of kidney leading to accumulation of wastes in the blood.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – it is a degenerative disease that leads to loss of control of voluntary muscles in the body. This results in muscle cramps, a common symptom of the condition.

Animal stings and bites – some animal bites or stings, particularly marine organisms may lead to muscle cramps. These bites cause vomiting, spasms, breathlessness, chest pain, and shock.

Chronic kidney disease – it is a progressive condition in which the kidneys gradually lose their functioning. This may result from high blood pressure and diabetes. Swelling in legs, fatigue, shortness of breath, and spasms are common symptoms of this condition.

Celiac disease, medullary cystic disease, and adrenal cortical carcinoma may also result in spasms.

3 Diagnosis and Treatment

Muscle cramps may be painful and often the person may be forced to stop the activity. The person may not be able to use the affected muscle for some time. Cramps may also be associated with swelling and soreness in the region.

These presenting symptom often help in the diagnosis of the cramp. Doctors may be able to feel the rigid bulge of the affected muscle. One need not have medical attention if the cramps are not severe.

Physical examination is the most common diagnostic technique for identifying the cause of cramp. Information on frequency of cramps, affected region, medications was taken, use of alcohol, exercise habits, and intake of fluid may help in identifying the possible cause of muscle cramps.

Blood tests are often suggested to check for levels of minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Kidney and thyroid function tests may also be useful for diagnosis of the cause of cramps.

Muscle activity and abnormalities in functioning are checked using electromyography. Myelography is another test that is useful in visualizing the structure and functioning of the spinal cord. Symptoms like weakness, pain, and loss of sensation may indicate nerve disorder.

Most cases of muscle cramps may not require medical attention, and simple home remedies may be useful in relieving pain. Hot and cold compress is a very effective home care method to reduce pain and swelling.

One can apply a hot or cold cloth compress, or a heating pad on the affected muscle to relieve pain and soreness. Ice is also effective in reducing pain. Muscle cramps can be reduced by stretching the affected muscle.

If the pain is not relieved by home treatment, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may be useful in stretching the sore muscles. In severe cases, a prescription muscle relaxant is recommended to relax the muscles and to reduce spasms.

Treating the underlying medical condition is the best way to control muscle cramps if it is caused by a disease or disorder. Treating the condition helps to ease the muscle spasm and to reduce pain. Vitamin and mineral supplements are recommended if muscle cramps are caused by deficiencies.

Limit strenuous physical activity to reduce the strain on muscles, and this is one of the simplest preventive measures for muscle cramps. One should stretch or have adequate warm up before starting a physical activity or sports.

Lack of warm up may lead to muscle injury and strain. Exercise should not be scheduled after eating. Intake of caffeine-rich foods should be reduced to reduce the risk of muscle cramps. Keep oneself well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

Having foods rich in calcium and potassium like milk and banana will help in reducing the chance of muscle cramps. Mineral and vitamin supplements may also be useful to avoid the chances of cramps during an activity.

Muscle cramps may cause discomfort and inconvenience but may be harmless in most of the cases. Following methods to prevent the occurrence of muscle cramps will help in alleviating the chance of spasms and cramps.

Medical history, associated symptoms and physical examination of the patient aid in identifying the possible cause of bleeding. Physical examination may include evaluation of anus and rectum.

This is also done with the help of proctoscope which is useful in checking deeper into the gut. Anal fissures and hemorrhoids are diagnosed with this method. Other tests and investigations are based on the suspected cause of bleeding in different parts of the gut.

Three tests are usually suggested for confirmatory diagnosis – sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, virtual colonoscopy or CT colonography.

Colonoscopy – in this procedure a colonoscope is inserted into the anus and passed to the colon. It is used to visualize the parts of large intestine till the meeting point with the small intestine. The fiber optic channels in the colonoscope help to visualize the inner parts of the gut. It can also be used to take a small sample of the inner lining of the colon for biopsy.

Sigmoidoscopy – this procedure uses a shorter form of colonoscopy that with a light source attached to it. This is usually used in cases where the bleeding is suspected to occur from lower parts of the colon, particularly the part that is joined to the rectum. The sigmoidoscope is inserted through the anus and passed to sigmoid colon and rectum.

Virtual colonoscopy – in this procedure a tube is passed into rectum which helps to push gas into the bowel to open it. CT scan of the bowel is the next step in this method.

Disorders in which bleeding is very less use a fecal occult blood test to evaluate bleeding. This procedure can only detect the blood cells in stool, but cannot detect the location of bleeding. Other imaging techniques like MRI, X-ray, and CT scan help in visualizing the flow of blood in the gastrointestinal system.

Treatment of bloody stool varies with the underlying cause of the problem. Stool softeners are recommended for people with hemorrhoids as it makes the movement of stool easier. Sitz bath is suggested to relieve pain and to prevent bleeding.

Bleeding from ulcers is treated with acid-reducing drugs. Inflammatory bowel disease is treated with immunosuppressant medications, while antibiotics are the choice for controlling infections.

Surgery is suggested for removing abnormalities in vein and blockages. This is usually recommended when bleeding does not resolve on its own or with conventional treatment. Those who have heavy blood loss due to bleeding may develop anemia and require a blood transfusion.

This procedure is essential to replace the lost blood cells in the body. Benign polyps may not require much treatment, and periodic monitoring is suggested. Polyps that are cancerous are treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Bloody stools can be prevented by keeping oneself well hydrated and by eating fiber-rich foods. This helps to soften the stool, aiding easy movement of feces. Raspberries, beans, artichokes, and whole grains are rich in fiber and can prevent this symptom.

But the choice of food should be done only after discussing with the doctor. This is particularly important in the case of people who have inflammatory bowel disease, where certain foods may irritate bowel and lead to inflammation.

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