A muscle cramp, known colloquially as a charley horse, occurs when a muscle contracts and doesn't immediately relax. These muscle spasms can be excruciatingly painful and difficult to soothe. Muscle cramps commonly affect the calves, thighs, feet, hands and arms.
Muscle cramps occur when muscles are overused, injured or strained. They are more likely to happen if you become dehydrated, are deficient in minerals such as calcium, potassium or magnesium, or take a diuretic medication for high blood pressure.
Some muscle cramps may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as inadequate blood supply and nerve compression. Inadequate blood supply is caused by a narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs and can produce cramplike pain in your legs and feet while exercising.
Compression of nerves in the spine lumbar stenosis can produce cramplike pain in the legs, which worsens with extended walking.
If you get a charley horse, massage the area lightly with your fingers. Heat will relax the muscle when the spasm begins. Taking a hot bath or applying a hot compress will help.
Once the pain has passed, try gently stretching the muscle. If pain persists after the spasm has passed, you can take an anti- inflammatory pain medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, and apply ice to the area.
Here are some strategies for preventing muscle cramps:
Stretch your muscles, especially before and after extended muscle use and before bedtime.
Wear comfortable, supportive shoes.
Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids every day. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax.
Take a break from whatever activity triggered the cramp.
Alcohol and coffee can contribute to dehydration, so drink both in moderation.
Make sure your bed sheets are loose. Tight-fitting sheets can force legs and feet into awkward positions.
Eat foods that are rich in potassium and magnesium, such as whole grains, bananas, dates, raisins, apricots, cabbage, broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and fish.
Eat the recommended daily allowance of dairy food, such as milk and cheese.
Shirley DeAcetis has her master's degree in social work and supervises the Maino Community Health Library at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.